As he finds a quiet spot away from any potential interference of livestock in nearby paddocks or wind gusts during our phone interview, physicist Professor David Lamb casually tells me that as someone who’s had a country upbringing and despises ‘the big smoke’, his role in precision agriculture research allows him to be able to combine both his agricultural and scientific passions.
“The majority of my research career has been outdoors, out in the paddock. Professor of the outdoors some actually often call me,” he jokes.
His nickname might be colloquial, but “Kirby-Newholme” a 2,900 hectare commercial property located 10km north west of the University of New England campus in which he is standing, is a unique asset for a range of research projects on grazing, sensors and sensor networks, forestation and water.
It was Australia’s first NBN-enabled SMART Farm
(www.une.edu.au/smartfarm) and with unprecedented connectivity (fibre, wireless, satellite and mobile phone) has enabled the Precision Agriculture Research Group to be at the forefront of several new technologies.
This ‘SMART Farm’, as it is known for its ‘Sustainable Management Accessible Rural Technologies’ showcases the latest in innovations aimed at improving productivity, environmental sustainability, safety, workflow and social/business support networks on Australian farms. It also serves as an ‘instrumented’ research laboratory, a connected classroom for students and researchers worldwide, and enables key stakeholders, farmers and the wider community to engage in various outreach activities.
The centrepiece of the working farm is a $2 million state-of-the-art innovation centre which monitors on-property technology, and its seminar room and classrooms are used to educate students, farmers and the community on the range of agricultural tools being developed or tested on-site.
“We’ve had the livestock producing farm (predominantly sheep, fat lambs and wool, and a genetic nucleus flock) since the 1960s and it’s transitioning from traditional farming to a smart farming approach and our goal is for it to really become best practice in livestock production. (We are going through) effectively a technology assisted management process and a process of revolutionising the way we are managing the farm, just like what’s happening in the real world out there…” Professor Lamb says.
“We’ve got pasture monitoring tools, sensor networks for monitoring plants and soil, even smart trees and beehives, for monitoring the weather and quad bike trackers, to name a few. We generate data and use it for our students’ research and to demonstrate to industry what is out there.
“We started to liven up some of the things we were working on and developed the farm and it’s now become a ‘trade fair’ type site and the headquarters for our many industry-funded research activities located at more than 22 research sites around Australia and New Zealand; many on other people’s farms where it really matters. It all supports our other core business which is education and extension.”
The property itself is revolutionary by world standards; in its size, its landscape diversity and its degree of connectivity, and, in addition to a research feedlot located an hour away (but similarly connected), complements the many other research fields supported by the university’s SMART Farms research and development strategy and focus on industry funded projects. The precision agriculture team has, to date received in excess of $16 million in industry funding, with the emphasis of delivering outcomes straight back into industry.
Professor Lamb’s own scientific research has been instrumental in the development or demonstration of many new technologies including his involvement in the first deployment of yield monitors in harvesters, and the use of EM38 for the first time in agricultural fields. He was also a part of the group in the late 1990s to demonstrate that airborne imagery could be used to map quality in vineyards, and now more than 30 per cent of the industry use those technologies.
“As far as technology in agriculture goes, it’s about giving the industry confidence, accessibility and reliability, and today much of this is predicated upon reliable telecommunications and internet connections. The tip of the spear of precision agriculture is probably guidance systems and the adoption rate in the grains industry for this is about 80 per cent. Anyone who buys a new harvester potentially has turn-key access to yield monitoring data but the actual practical use of yield maps in a management sense is much lower; about 40 to 50 per cent of those who generate the yield maps. Many struggle to put the data to good work and there is a heck of a lot of ‘white noise’ around big data. Many who speak of it don’t really know what it means, especially those that purport to offer silver bullet solutions to farmers, only that there is lots of it. Data management comes down to putting data together with ‘gut servers’ and ‘neck top computers’ – ie. the farmers experience. You can never, nor should you ever, take them out of the equation,” he says.
“We’re on the pathway to the adoption of many new things – variable rate fertilizer management – and the livestock industry hasn’t even started with their yield maps. Only last year colleagues Dr Mark Trotter and Zac Economou created what is possibly the world’s first ever grazing yield map on the SMART Farm – mapping kilograms of red meat produced per hectare per annum on the basis of tracking and live weight gain data for a flock of sheep. This is how the grains industry started in the early 90s. It’s back to the future and that’s a great thing for our 47,000 red meat producers. There has also been a continual push for a number of years to develop tools to optimise the management of nitrogen in farming.”
Some of the major research projects currently being undertaken include:
• Developing applications for mobile devices such as smart phones for farmers to monitor and manage pasture biomass.
• Determining the potential of, and how animals respond to, virtual fencing for application to grazing livestock and evaluate if simple radio frequency based systems could be adapted for commercial use.
• Nitrogen sensing and management using automatically coordinated measurements to generate a growth strategy for crops and pastures. The programme detects pasture nitrogen requirements and precisely controls fertilizer application based on a single nitrogen management setting that enables farmers to balance productivity and nitrogen leaching. The project aims to integrate disparate measurements of pasture status to automatically generate an absolute nitrogen requirement prescription map, without human intervention.
• An investigation into the use of both drone and on-ground high resolution imaging systems to create 3-D images of pastures and crops for determining biomass and quantifying the water and nutrient status of plants.
- Building applications for unmanned aerial vehicles to support field data collection, new sensor development and image-calibration work involving satellite and aerial images.
• Using satellite imagery to monitor sugar cane and tree crops at a national scale.
• Using intelligent imaging systems as sentinel shepherds – detecting and monitoring wild dogs and other feral animals around farms.
“Through our SMART Farm, we’re also working on the internet connectivity side of things. For example, using cameras to monitor chickens in our research poultry sheds, streaming live data of quad bikes and soil moisture, we are looking at smart bee hives, smart trees, the whole issue of connecting things on-farm, even weather stations and creating virtual rain gauges, is under the microscope. The whole point of the livestock property is to liven it up, but we don’t want to create measures that are too hard to manage…”
Livestock theme leader Dr Mark Trotter is driving a number of industry funded projects. “Our livestock tracking/virtual fencing project is in the developmental phase but the argument for why it’s needed is compelling, and effectively creating yield maps for our pasture country. There’s 5 million kilometres of fencing in Australia at $5000/km. That equals $25million of asset that has to be turned over every year – so, are there alternatives to physical fencing? It’s certainly an example of a technology that has a strong economic basis but there are some real technological challenges in getting it to work,” Professor Lamb says.
“Other technologies like soil moisture sensors, gate sensors, trough alerts, water tank level detectors, weather stations; they’re all here now, but it’s about learning how to make use of the data, what are the easiest ways these can be put to work, and advantages to farmers. We’re relying on, first and foremost, reliability and realistic price points in the market when we benchmark devices on our farm. We can’t get it wrong because all of our future is in the technology that copes with the greatest global challenges such as food security and climate change.”