Many growers are asking how they can make their farming businesses ‘tech ready’ to capitalise on opportunities from digital agriculture
Grain growers across the globe are starting to dip their toes into the new world of digital agriculture, using an array of technologies such as satellite and multi-spectral imagery, smart data-collecting sensors, and moisture and soil-testing probes in an attempt to improve profits in their broadacre businesses.
While much has been written about autonomous vehicles, this is one area of the technological revolution that has yet to take off in mainstream broadacre agriculture, although experts say the use of the technology is not far away from being commonplace in the industry.
To that end, growers have been asking how they can ensure their businesses are set up correctly to allow for an easy transition when these machines become practically and financially accessible to all growers.
According to Kondinin Group’s chief research engineer Ben White and Birchip Cropping Group’s commercial services manager Cameron Taylor, autonomous technology will open up a world of efficiencies for broadacre grain growers.
Both agree for growers to be early adopters, not only must their farm businesses be ‘tech ready’, but the rest of the supply chain must also invest in understanding the technology.
Mr White believes it will be a matter of years, not decades, before autonomous vehicles will be available on a widespread, financially accessible scale.
“There is a lot of talk about what we might see in the future, and while much of the technology can’t yet be purchased at your local dealer, what growers can do now is prepare their business for when these machines become available,” he says.
“The decisions we make now will affect a business’s ability to easily adopt that technology as and when it becomes more commonplace.”
Mr Taylor agrees, suggesting once these types of machines are available at local and regional machinery dealers the uptake will be significant among Australian growers.
“There have been studies done on the uptake of technology within agricultural industries in Australia and the US, and anything that involves automation has a high uptake level simply because growers find this type of technology easy to incorporate immediately into their business,” Mr Taylor says.
“But when it comes to other types of technology and digital applications, such as data entry and analysis, the uptake is much slower because this is much more difficult to comprehend and often more difficult to see how it will improve efficiencies and profits.”
Growers already using a controlled-traffic farming (CTF) system are obviously best placed to adopt autonomous technology, Mr White says, with multiples of swathe widths an easy fit for autonomous vehicles.
In fact, using autonomous machines to renovate wheel tracks might be one of the starting points into the world of machinery automation.
“The obvious challenges of fences, rocky paddocks, powerlines and other in-paddock obstacles may not be as hard to overcome as first thought,” Mr White says.
“Permanent structures, for example power poles, will be easy to avoid and, in most cases, autonomous vehicles will be able to find more efficient ways to navigate these sorts of obstacles than our current conventional machinery.”
He says mapping out exact pathways these futuristic autonomous machines will take across the paddock is something growers should be thinking about right now, even if they are not set up for CTF.
Beefwood Farms, located between Moree, NSW, and Goondiwindi, Queensland, is one of the few farming operations in Australia using autonomous vehicles in the business.
Manager Glenn Coughran says when looking at ways to be more efficient, autonomous vehicles were an obvious fit, given the business has been operating on CTF principles for many years.
Most of the paddocks across the numerous Beefwood Farms properties are between 500 and 1000 hectares, and run lines can be up to five kilometres long.
The business retrofitted a Fendt 936 tractor, which can now autonomously pull a weed spot sprayer and renovate tramlines.
But Mr Coughran does not see the business moving into autonomous seeding or harvesting machinery immediately.
“It’s those tasks that require very minimal input from the driver that we believe are perfectly suited to this type of technology,” he says.
“When we are seeding or harvesting, the operator still has to make many decisions, so it’s not something that we will be moving into anytime soon.”
Sensor technology on automated machines will assist these machines to move efficiently across paddocks, avoiding obstacles and mapping paddock information, creating artificially intelligent machines that know your paddocks almost better than a regular operator would.
“For example, these sensors will be recording a huge range of data, such as wheel slippage, soil and ambient temperature, disease and pest loads on crops, to build a bank of knowledge for future use,” Mr White says.
Areas that are waterlogged might be a bit more of a challenge for autonomous machines to overcome, he says.
“Identifying areas that are regularly waterlogged might be something growers need to start thinking about in the transition to autonomy, but those random wet patches in the paddock could prove to be a challenge, and I don’t believe autonomous vehicles have had technology developed to overcome this challenge yet.”
Regulations and laws
Mr White says there are no overarching regulations governing the use of automated machines on farms, but this could change in the future.
“Machinery manufacturers are directly involved in discussions around this issue and over time we could see the introduction of charters that guide the use of autonomous machines, but there isn’t anything in concrete at this stage,” he says.
Mr Taylor believes the first step towards automation will be retrofitting conventional machinery, just as Beefwood Farms has done, to allow growers to jump back into the sprayer or tractor when they need to.
“Because many farm businesses have paddocks separated by public roads, there will need to be the capability for growers to be able to drive these machines, so multi-use vehicles might be more useful than single automated systems,” he says.
“Also, nothing replaces the ground-truthing that takes place when a grower is spraying a paddock or planting the crop.”
Mr Taylor says the business case for purchasing autonomous vehicles is relatively easy to prove when compared with some other agricultural digital technologies – with the cost of the machine as the major outlay.
“A grower can compare this cost with his or her other machinery expenses, then add in the savings from reducing labour costs,” he says.
“Unlike a lot of other digital expenses, the cost–benefit analysis for the purchase and operation of an autonomous vehicle will be quite transparent and it will be easy to see if the business will benefit from moving into this field of technology.”
At Beefwood Farms, Mr Coughran says, it took several years for the budget to be in the black after investing in the autonomous technology.
“We have saved on labour costs, but it took a lot of time and investment in the R&D of the software to ensure it was right for our business,” he says.
“It was definitely a trial-and-error process but it’s starting to pay off now.”
The key to early adoption of this type of technology and other digital applications that can improve yields and profits is education, Mr Taylor suggests.
He believes autonomous vehicles can only be widely adopted if the rest of the industry is on the same page.
“We need a whole education process that goes right across all parts of the supply chain, because growers won’t be able to adopt this type of technology if the backup and technical support is not there to assist them,” he says.
The Birchip Cropping Group has been working closely with the Victorian Government to develop training programs that will help growers and industry to better understand the nuts and bolts of precision agriculture and digital technologies.
The Agriculture Technology Innovation Development and Extension (AgTIDE) Program is a multi-tiered program targeted at growers, agronomists, industry groups and researchers. Mr Taylor hopes the program will be replicated across the country.
Mr Taylor says part of the training involves understanding the economics of putting automation and precision technologies into a farming business.
“Growers need to work out if these types of technologies are going to improve their profits and, likewise, the machinery dealers need to understand the value proposition of this new technology,” he says.
Adrian Roles, who farms at Young, New South Wales, has been working closely with Mr Taylor and the Birchip Cropping Group to develop these training programs to ensure growers appreciate which new technologies will benefit their businesses.
Mr Roles believes many growers may not necessarily understand what is useful technology and what is a waste of money.
While he has been dabbling in technology on his mixed-farming enterprise for almost two decades, he says a trial-and-error approach might be the only way growers discover what works for their farm business.
He says there will almost certainly be financial losses involved as growers work out what is beneficial to their businesses and what is a waste of time and money.
Like Mr Taylor, Mr Roles believes the early automated machines will be retrofitted, but he says this will then open up issues with warranties and servicing. “I don’t think we are quite there yet as an industry in working out how these machines can be best put to use, or how other supply chain participants can service and maintain this level of technology.”
At a recent autonomous vehicle field day, Mr Roles says a couple of pet emus standing in the paddock shut down the autonomous tractor on display.
“Clearly there are still some issues that need to be ironed out before they can become easy for a farming business to adopt,” Mr Roles says.
Mr Roles has not yet purchased an autonomous machine, but believes their mainstream availability is just around the corner. But it is the data density and information gathering from these vehicles that he is truly excited about.
“Most growers are already collecting lots of data, and these autonomous machines will enhance this capability,” he says.
The most important way to make data a value proposition is to ensure it is accurate and generated in a standardised and spatial format.
Mr Roles says this would then allow for the movement and sharing of data between growers and their trusted advisers.
“The value of the data that autonomous vehicles will generate can only be realised if it is kept in a standardised and spatial format,” he says.
This data can then be used to achieve greater insight into growers’ paddocks.
“For example, using the data for better soil, plant and paddock performance analysis such as the generation of spatial gross margin maps, which can then be stacked up against multiple seasonal variations and crop rotations to look at the profitability of zones within the paddock and the farm in the long term,” he says.
“It will be important to ensure that autonomous vehicles and the data they generate will make a grower more dollars per hectare per 100 millimetres of rain or megalitre – or what is the point?” he says.
Adoption of technology, particularly autonomous vehicles, will be reliant on connectivity, and some growers may be constrained by this issue, Mr Roles says.
How these autonomous vehicles will be powered is another interesting question.
“We might all be installing solar panels on our shed roofs in the next few years to keep these machines going without using fossil fuels,” he says.
Mr Roles reiterates the entire industry supply chain needs to be involved in this digital and technological revolution to answer those types of questions.
“I have been trying out new technologies for many years, and I have made many mistakes along the way, and dipping your toes into this new type of farming and finding what works and what doesn’t will be a trial-and-error process for all of us,” he says.
- More information: Ben White at firstname.lastname@example.org; Cameron Taylor at email@example.com; or Adrian Roles firstname.lastname@example.org