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Workshops help growers begin PA journey

Precision agriculture (PA) expert Tim Neale delivering one of the ‘Hands on Precision Agriculture Workshops’ at Kingaroy in Queensland. PA uptake in the northern region has lagged behind other states, making it important to give growers a starting point.
Photo: Tim Neale

Key Points

  • Workshops are helping interested growers begin their precision agriculture journey
  • They are being tweaked to suit regional needs
  • They are part of a broader GRDC-invested project led by the Society for Precision Agriculture Australia (SPAA), with support from Birchip Cropping Group, Rural Directions, the Grower Group Alliance (GGA) and FarmLink
  • Adoption in the northern region lags behind other regions for a number of reasons.

Growers are being given the tools to ask the right questions about on-farm variability and its management via a series of precision agriculture (PA) workshops being held across the northern region.

The ‘Hands on Precision Agriculture Workshops’ are part of a broader GRDC-invested project led by the Society of Precision Agriculture Australia (SPAA), with support from Birchip Cropping Group, Rural Directions, the Grower Group Alliance (GGA) and FarmLink.

Although PA (the precise application of agronomic and management practices) has been used by many growers across Australia for some time, its uptake in the northern region has lagged.

One reason could be the climate-driven nature of grain growing in Queensland and New South Wales, says PA expert Tim Neale, chief executive of DataFarming. Mr Neale, who ran the workshops, says northern growers are often responding to a rain break, not necessarily looking at long-term trends or year-to-year variability.

“Climatic variability can lead to limited planning. That’s certainly part of it,” Mr Neale says. “However, northern growers often cannot identify a clear variability problem, compared to other growing areas. For instance, in Western Australia there is an acidity issue, which has led to stronger PA use cases and available solutions.”

Despite this, there are opportunities for northern growers to use PA to improve on-farm economics and the workshops aimed to introduce the basics.

Former FarmLink extension and engagement manager Matt Kelly, who ran and coordinated the workshops in southern NSW, says the focus was on:

  • identifying and quantifying variability and constraints;
  • introducing hardware and software terminology;
  • producer case studies, PA benefits and lessons learnt;
  • where to, and how to, start managing constraints with PA technologies;
  • tips and tricks for data management; and developing a PA implementation plan.

“Workshops were targeted at an introductory level,” he says. “We got down to the bare bones and were keen to point growers in the direction of PA experts in their area. This is valuable when talking to a local audience.”

Mr Kelly says he is not surprised that PA uptake is still a work in progress for many growers. “I’ve worked with growers in the past and work part-time on the family farm. I understand that it takes time to build trust in a consultant or a piece of technology. And if you’ve had an experience and it didn’t go well, it can push you back a bit.

“That is where a farming systems group plays a role, with projects like this bringing local experts in to deliver regionally specific content. We can be impartial, talk through the basics and explain areas where PA can help.”

The second round of workshops will take a more targeted approach according to regional needs. This will include nitrogen management, harvest and – importantly – setting up to effectively collect data and understand what can be done with it.

Another workshop in Kingaroy. FarmLink’s Matt Kelly says the ‘Hands on Precision Agriculture Workshops’ were targeted at an introductory level. The next series will expand on that. Photo: Tim Neale

Case study

Case studies featuring local growers were undertaken during the workshops and Mr Neale helped Kingaroy grower Julian Cross.

Mr Cross grows peanuts, wheat and maize and is interested in applying variable fertiliser rates to better manage excess nutrient run-off into the lower end of the Great Barrier Reef water catchment and to allow targeted application within paddocks.

“I’ve been interested in variable-rating for a while and started yield-mapping a few years ago,” he says. “But I have had trouble getting data out of the system and making good use of it.”

He started collecting normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) satellite data using Mr Neale’s DataFarming platform. NDVI is an index of plant ‘greenness’ or photosynthetic activity and shows the health of a crop or pasture.

“It gave us another layer of crop variance through the fields. We then did some tests on different areas looking at water-holding capacity and nutrient levels,” Julian says.

At first, they concentrated on the worst paddocks. “It’s an old farm with erosion and a mix of good and bad areas, making it hard to get an average crop. So, we thought it would be a good candidate for variable-rate nutrition.”

Mr Cross says the worst areas were targeted first, but he has since moved to targeting the better-performing areas. “We now put more down on good areas and less on poor areas. We have ended up applying 30 kilograms per hectare less than we used to and it is looking good.”

Mr Neale says that extrapolating this paddock to the whole farm could see a saving of $10,000 in fertiliser costs in a year.

Mr Cross is now a convert to variable-rate use. “Now I know how simple and easy it can be. We’ve now done maps in all crops. I was wasting money on poor areas but will put money where the best bang for our buck is.”

He is also considering variable-rate planting. “In our shallower country where it doesn’t hold subsoil moisture, we can cut the population and in the deeper soil we can boost the population and aim for a better yield. We’ll end up using the same amount of seed but distribute it differently.”

His advice is to soil test and know what soil constraints need to be addressed. “Most people have GPS on their machinery but have been slow to go the next step. I’d say that it is worth it.”

PA uptake

Mr Neale says this case study highlights the benefit of helping growers get started.

It is why he launched a free NDVI satellite service, as part of his DataFarming business, three years ago. “It can be hard knowing where to start. That’s why we launched the free service to get people engaged and break down the barriers to starting the PA journey.”

Mr Neale has been involved in PA for 20 years. After time with the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries as a controlled-traffic farming expert, he ran a boutique PA business, but was “frustrated” and realised he wanted to do something that would communicate PA to the agricultural masses instead.

“When I began DataFarming in 2017, I was so frustrated about the lack of adoption. By offering free satellite imagery and making it easy to access, we have increased the number of users looking at NDVI and now over 20,000 farms are on the platform.

“The great thing about satellite data is that it is immediately relevant. It is a good starting point to looking for variability.”

Mr Neale says it is important the broader agricultural industry changes its thinking regarding PA adoption. “The biggest aspect we need to understand is in how technology has failed our industry. PA technology needs to be simple, fast and easy. The question should not be ‘why have growers not adopted PA?’ but ‘where have we (tech companies) gone wrong?’”

Often drivers for adoption are not better yields but keeping costs in check. “The question that always pops up is ‘how do I reduce my costs?’”

The workshops are a great help, he says. “Many people don’t know where to begin. We can take growers and agronomists on a journey. We need them to know that there is no magical end point and they are all at different stages of the same journey.”

Mr Kelly agrees. “Growers and agronomists are very enthusiastic, and we need to harness that, which is why we will be focusing on opportunities regionally for PA.”

The GrainInnovate Fund (a GRDC and Artesian partnership) is an investor in DataFarming. ART1903-001OPX

Hands On Precision Agriculture Workshops is a GRDC Investment with Society for Precision Agriculture Australia (SPAA) and FarmLink SPA2001-001.

More information: Farmlink, 02 680 1333,; Tim Neale, 0409 634 006,

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