Ground Cover North : Ground Cover 047 November-December 2003 - North
By MICHAEL SMITH My wife, Bev, and I farm 1250 hectares south-east of Moree in Northern NSW, growing durum and bread wheat, chickpeas, canola and sorghum. No-till and controlled-traffic form the basis of the farming system we use. Our initial interest in 'precision ag' came from the ability of a yield monitor to quantify yield spatially for our farm. We knew that our yields varied within fields, and that soil depth (plant available water) was the most likely driver of this. If this pattern was to prove consistent then it was only common sense that fertiliser inputs could be varied, to achieve greater efficiency and balance in the system. Yield mapping was started in 1996. Being very conscious of costs, the soil depth was initially measured with a steel probe that had 15-centimetre graduations on it, and the position was recorded by an Agleader monitor in site mode. Our soils lent themselves to this process because of a decomposing rock layer underlying the black self- mulching clay, which holds less water and was impenetrable to the probe. This process proved useful to gain confidence in the relationship between yield and soil depth and in feeling we were on the right track. However, it did require some time and effort to gather, and the data density was directly related to my enthusiasm. By getting involved with Brett Whelan at the Australian Centre for Precision Agriculture at Sydney University, we have since moved on to using a Veris 3100 conductivity sensor, and EM 31 and 38, which give greater data density and can detect some chemical constraints. In 1999 we moved down the variable rate path using yield, Veris, and soil depth data as the basis for the development of management zones. Again, set-up costs and equipment availability were a concern. So we modified our existing airseeders' drive and linked this to a Raven 700 spray controller which the Agleader PF3000 could communicate with. The cost to modify the drive was $3620. The overall emphasis of this approach has been to keep it simple and use basic management techniques to make decisions (target yields, nutrient history and so on). We have not gone out and done wholesale soil testing of fields (cost is prohibitive), but rather targeted specific areas. Precision Agriculture (PA) is no replacement for a good farming system, but is a great source of information to help manage a system. It can, and does, get complicated We have had the good fortune to work with a number of researchers over the past few years (ACPA, QDPI, CSIRO and APSRU) and continue to do so. All of which adds more pieces to the jigsaw puzzle, and just how many bits you need to see the big picture is probably a personal preference. Protein mapping, airborne and satellite imagery are all useful additions to the database. Incorporating crop model simulations (APSIM) provides an opportunity to do some virtual farming, looking at a whole raft of information in a farming system. This is leading us down a path of trying to manage our crops more closely to each season, to reduce the downside in poorer years while reaping the benefits of the better ones. Problems and pitfalls Software and knowledge to manage all this information is an ongoing issue with various packages offering some, but not all, of what you might need, and even these are expensive. Using a second party to handle this side is an option, but cost and freedom of data could be an issue. Thrown in with all of this is compatibility between brands of hardware as communication protocols move from serial to Canbus. Large manufacturers are developing complete suites of equipment to maintain market share, with limited ability to work across all platforms. This requires a fair effort alone, but hopefully they will realise that we don't all use one colour. Rather than protecting their share it may well limit the progression in PA. Gathering decent yield data can be challenging when the pressure is on, and not many contractors can map this (cost recovery and management of the systems are issues). Airborne and satellite images are useful to fill in the gaps and to see the variation trends. Despite some of the problems with managing PA we have found it rewarding -- around seven percent fertiliser cost reduction -- and challenging to be involved. There is never going to be the absolutely right time to move into PA -- because it will continue to evolve. It will come down to your desire or need to improve your management, and what tools will be required to achieve it. For more information: Michael Smith: Fax 02 6754 6709 email firstname.lastname@example.org The Australian oilseeds sector offers some of the most exciting opportunities in the grains industry through diversification, innovation and adding value. Generating crops worth more than $1 billion, we form only a small part of the overall grains industry, but the potential is great when it comes to new products and applications. These can shift our reliance away from the traditional markets for oils and open new areas in which demand is growing. But while exploiting these fresh opportunities, we have to ensure that we continue to add value to our existing industries. Mustard seed shows how we can succeed at both. Varieties developed with oil quality equivalent to canola will expand production areas into more marginal land not suitable for canola, and increase the overall area under cultivation to help us become a more significant force in world markets. In the sunflower seeds area, the possibilities are exciting. For example, polymer resins made from sunflower oil are being used to create fibre composites that are five times stronger than steel or concrete. Researchers at the University of Southern Queensland have been testing oils such as linseed, canola and cottonseed to create construction material that can be used in building bridges and underwater pylons. In other areas we are finding new ways to extract value from residue. Sunflower heads that had been previously discarded are yielding low-methoxy pectins that are in demand for manufacturing yoghurt products and low sugar jams. This pectin only occurs naturally in sunflowers and attracts a premium in the market. Confectionery sunflowers represent a small but growing domestic market and a huge, potential international market. Demand in China for confectionery sunflower has been estimated at 100,000 tonnes, but we do not yet have the right varieties available and it will take time to meet this demand. This raises the crucial issue of supply chain management. We have learned some lessons over the years that we can apply when developing new products. With linola, for example, the CSIRO did a fantastic job in developing a product that met market demand for a polyunsaturated oil from a winter-growing crop. But there was insufficient communication along the supply chain to investigate the cost effectiveness of segregation. That product has never been commercialised in Australia, but is grown successfully in Canada. If we look at these new industries, there are some features they have in common to succeed. Crop suitability is essential because both processors and crushers need the right quantity and the right quality, while higher up the supply chain growers need to know that the crop will be agronomically viable to grow. Consistency of quality and supply is also crucial, as are clear market signals. If we have good information flowing up and down the chain we will have the right products supplied in the right quality and the right quantity -- and this is what is needed. The work of the Australian Oilseeds Federation is ensuring that producers face no conflict between traditional products and these exciting new opportunities -- both are about adding value. This is an edited extract of an address to the Agriculture Australia 2003 conference. GROWER FORUM 6 NOVEMBER 2003 Precision Agriculture -- a grower's journey Tapping the potential of oilseeds By ROSEMARY RICHARDS, executive director, Australian Oilseeds Federation Michael and Bev Smith. On track: Michael Smith reaping the benefits of precision agriculture.
Ground Cover 048 February-March 2004 - North