Exciting developments in big data, telemetry, sensor and camera technology have made it possible for a farmer to remotely monitor many aspects of their business. Livestock producers are using this technology to monitor their stock, water and fences. Grain and fruit growers are using the same technology to plan optimal times for nutrient delivery, harvest and irrigation.
Also becoming more popular is the remote monitoring of vehicles as farmers can locate them using GPS as well as see data including when the vehicle’s next service is due.
Remotely monitoring the farm has a multitude of benefits including improving productivity and efficiencies, reducing costs and making better decisions. New advances in technology allow more time for farmers to attend field days, meetings, and conferences, develop new income streams, spend time with family and participate in community activities.
According to international industry analysis firm Frost & Sullivan, Australian farmers are among the fastest in the world to adopt new technology and equipment, and one of the reasons why precision agriculture and remote monitoring are tipped to become a $500 million industry by 2020.
This investment in technology is also being road tested at the University of New England (UNE), where the university is currently trialling cutting edge technologies at its flagship SMART Farm (Sustainable Manageable Accessible Rural Technologies Farm) where partners including CSIRO, Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), Boeing Defence, State government bodies and the Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources work together to explore new ways of automating farming practices.
The university has transformed a 2900 hectare commercial farm known as ‘Kirby-Newholme’ located 10km North West of the campus, to showcase the latest technologies aimed at improving productivity, environmental sustainability, safety, work flow and social/business support networks on Australian farms.
UNE physicist David Lamb said the project was unique in its size as well as the depth and breadth of its industry collaboration.
“All the work being undertaken by the SMART Farm team is industry funded, we have about $10 million dollars of industry research and development on the books at the moment with a vast array of private and industry partners,” Mr Lamb said.
“We have four cooperative research centres (CRCs) that utilise this resource including the Poultry CRC, the Invasive Animal CRC, and CRC for Spatial Information and Sheep CRC. The projects range from large scale remote sensing type projects that use satellite imagery to the small scale sensor and gadgets being deployed by farmers on the ground,” he said.
“For example Meat and Livestock Australia and the CRC for Spatial Information are bringing together small handheld devices with mobile phone devices to provide tools for farmers on the ground. We also have the use of drones for a range of activities including looking at pasture biomass and carbon stored in trees and even weighing animals remotely.”
In the command centre of the SMART Farm, which is a fully Wi-Fi connected farm house, all the data captured during the project comes together to form an impressive data bank that stores all information both live and latently to anyone in the world.
Sharing data can be extremely useful for farmers who see it as a way to facilitate learning from other farmers, it allows producers to benchmark their own operations and it adds considerable value to entire industry sectors.
Yet getting the message out to farmers was proving easier said than done. Will Harrington, managing director from Queensland-based company uSee said it has been a challenge to educate the market and get farmers to give the new technology a chance.
“We see happy customers become reliant on technology and it frees up their time, changing their working lives in some cases,” Mr Harrington said.
“Many farmers see everyday management of the farm as a lifestyle choice, rather than a business and because of that they don’t value their time like an office worker would. They don’t put a value on driving around the farm to check water troughs – when they absolutely should,” he said.
“Generational change is seeing younger farmers taking up the technology, but the market needs to be educated. Remote monitoring is considered a very niche area, when it really shouldn’t be.”
Harrington is also completing a Nuffield Scholarship on remote monitoring and said advances in satellite imagery were potential future game changers.
“We are seeing satellite imagery being used in real time to monitor properties, it isn’t commercial yet and is still in development, but in a few years it will be possible to watch and monitor assets on the farm with a satellite, and as the technology gets better it may even be as cheap as a normal monitoring system,” he said.
OUT RIDING FENCES
Virtual fencing is fast becoming a large-scale reality with agricultural company Gallagher recently partnering with a new Melbourne-based technology company Agersens in November to commercialise their eSheperd virtual fencing system, which has been hailed as a remote monitoring breakthrough.
The technology was first patented by CSIRO and allows livestock producers to fence, move, muster and monitor their livestock remotely.
Dairy Australia has recently been awarded $2.6 million to lead a four-year industry testing program of the eSheperd system by the Federal government.
The eShepherd system works by enabling farmers to create a virtual fence via an app that communicates with a collar worn by each animal. Animals are trained to respond to prompts provided by the collar, which can also collect and communicate data to help alert farmers to any health or production issues.
By automating the control of livestock grazing, virtual fencing has the potential to improve animal health and welfare, while increasing productivity and profitability by cutting labour, fencing and other input costs.
Gallagher’s Malcolm Linn told Farming Ahead that farmers have a lot of cost effective options available to them.
“Our most popular products are on-farm livestock productivity solutions for better utilisation of pastures, feral pest control and livestock data collection,” Mr Linn said.
“The more intensively one farms, the more resources are needed, so there are a number of components that lead to remote monitoring. For example the more you fence, the more stock watering you need. Our fencing systems are being adopted in more and more extensive farming operations and tend to become part of a larger system that incorporates gates, fencing, livestock monitoring and animal heat detection,” he said.
“The largest benefit of remotely monitored fencing is peace of mind. The peace of mind knowing the fence is up and your crop or livestock weren’t attacked by feral pests in the night.
When many farmers think of technology, they expect it to be expensive, but these days the technology is getting cheaper all the time and systems can be as simple or as complicated as you need them to be.”
According to Malcolm, electric fencing is more cost effective, up to 35 per cent cheaper than a traditional fencing system.
“What that means is you are able to fence more land and with remote monitoring you are able to exercise a greater level of confidence over your property, no matter the distance. So all of a sudden it becomes a viable alternative for predator incursions whether they are kangaroos in your crop or wild dogs attacking your livestock. Remote monitoring extends the range and confidence level of your farm.”
One Gallagher customer, Gordon Brown is the manager of the ‘Shelburn’ sheep property in Shelford, located 40km west of Geelong in Victoria.
Before deciding on what he wanted, Gordon spent a bit of time researching, to compare products and suppliers. He chose a Westonfence system and two Gallagher M5800i Energizers with remote monitoring.
Although people usually consider this product as boundary fencing, Gordon said its quality for stock control and the fact he wanted lots of subdivisions saw him choose to use it internally too.
“The reasons for choosing an electrified fence over a traditional fabricated fence were simple,” Mr Brown said.
“I like a fence that’s stock proof when the power’s down, and bullet proof when electrified. Once livestock work out a way to escape, they never forget, so my plan is to never to allow them to learn bad habits but to have good control from the start, rather than trying to beat bad habits after they have already begun,” he said.
Water is one of the most important and valuable elements in farming. Remotely monitoring this resource more often than not leads to savings and improvements. Being able to remotely check and fill water troughs has obvious time and money saving benefits as well as giving producers added confidence in terms of livestock welfare.
Harrington said the company’s tank sensors and camera systems were proving to be popular with farmers all over Australia. The company provides tank sensors and cameras that monitor water troughs through a website and mobile phone app. The apps were developed in house by the company and use mobile, or where no coverage is available, satellite networks. The water level readings are uploaded simultaneously to a secure online dashboard on the uSee website where they can be viewed and email and SMS notifications are integrated to alert farmers if the water level is above or below their desired pre-set limits.
The uSee remote camera is a solar powered camera that takes photos on a schedule or on demand. The images are immediately uploaded to the uSee cloud using the mobile phone network, or using satellite. The images can be reviewed using the uSee website or app and notifications can be set up to let you know when images are taken.
Will said the cost of technology is dropping all the time. “Years and years of development have created the products on the market today that are hardy enough to survive life on the farm, yet sophisticated enough to be plug and play for ease of use,” Mr Harrington said.
“For example satellite connectivity has dropped in price, a tank sensor system is now almost on par with a 3G network system at around $2000,” he said.
Leak detection units are another way technology is changing and improving work on the farm.The Alpha Group leak detection units can monitor any water system over a 24 hour period so users can see any abnormal water use.
Leak detection units work on any water metering unit with a pulse output, or if your water outlets don’t have this you can adapt by adding your own flow meters.
Shane Oster from the Alpha Group said with water in South Australia as high as $3.42 per kilolitre, a crack or split in water pipes can cost 2000-3000 litres per day or as much as $5000 to $15,000 a quarter.
“There’s often a lot of distance involved when checking water infrastructure and when time-critical events are happening like harvest, farmers can’t afford to check each and every pipe,” Mr Oster said.
“Ageing water infrastructure means most farms have leaks on their properties, it may not be obvious, but it is almost always there. We see two very common ways that water is wasted; the first is a full blow out where you can lose 50,000 litres a day from a burst or broken pipe, the second is a small drip leak that may be very slowly costing you a fortune,” he said.
“After installation farmers are reporting leaks they never knew existed. We also get what many customers thought were puddles and seeps are actually burst water pipes that are very old and deep. They drive past them every day and never give them a second thought and when they learn how much money and water they are wasting it can be a shock.”
Shane said the benefits include the peace of mind of being sure the farm is not wasting water.
“Some customers have reported being able to leave the farm for the first time with confidence that their animals will have enough water, which is a wonderful thing,” he said.
It almost seems too good to be true; a simple sensor in the ground can tell you exactly how much water and how much fertiliser to use on any given crop, but this is the now the reality of remote soil moisture monitoring.
Most modern sensors use capacitance-based technology to provide near continuous measurements within the soil profile. By creating a high frequency electrical field around the sensor, extending through a tube placed into the soil, the sensors detect the changes in dielectric constant, or permittivity, of the soil over time.
At high frequency the measurement is affected predominantly by water molecules. The greater the amount of water, the smaller the frequency measured within the sensor. Soil moisture sensors give an output in volumetric water content (mm of water per 100mm of soil measured).
This is converted from a scaled frequency reading, using a default calibration equation, which is based on data obtained from decades of scientific studies in a range of soil textures. Oster said farmers can go and poke a screwdriver into the ground trying to assess their soils but the critical thing is to know what is happening at depth, 80-90cm down.
“It’s impossible to tell just by looking at the ground. You want to know what crops are pulling what moisture, which can help you assess how full your ‘bucket’ is. Which can be very helpful at the start of the year when you’re about to start sowing. You can also use it for assessing nitrogen levels which are critical,” Shane said.
“We are finding farmers take up the all-in-one soil monitor and weather stations for their convenience,” he said.
“Since installing soil moisture probes on our customer’s property, we can see the guess work of watering has been replaced with certainty.
“Our farmers are now adequately watering their lucerne crops at the optimum time to increase crop growth and improve yields.”
BIG DATA AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Big data and artificial intelligence will play an important role in the precision agriculture landscape, incorporating intelligent systems such as drones and driverless tractors. According to analysts Frost & Sullivan, farm equipment, livestock, and crop management sectors will be among the first to adopt precision agriculture solutions in Australia.
Industrial practice research analyst Dev Dorasamy from Frost & Sullivan, said broadacre cropping technology is currently the most widely used in the agriculture industry, in particular global positioning system (GPS) enabled guidance or auto steering solutions.
“Automation type precision agriculture solutions are currently employed mainly in irrigation. However they will play an important role in the farms of the future, where direct labour input will be minimised and much of the farm management will be done remotely,” Mr Dorasamy said.
Head of research for Frost & Sullivan Australia Audrey William said information and communication technologies also play an important role in precision agriculture as communication solutions providers are a critical link in ensuring that data gathered from the farm is transmitted for further analysis.
“Due to the remote location of farms, most of this data and the necessary analytic platforms are hosted in the cloud. The game changer for the market will be in successfully leveraging powerful artificial intelligence platforms in order to make relevant recommendations based on predictive analysis,” Ms William said.
Dev Dorasamy said just like any business, farmers are looking to reap the benefits of big data – or more specifically prescriptive and predictive analytics.
“Prescriptive analytics is basically from the farm data, whatever the farmer is entering either automatically or manually,” Dorasamy said.
“It analyses that data and says this part of your farm is not performing as well as it should, perhaps the output is not good versus the cost going in to it, and it might be a good idea to not even plant that field next season.
“Predictive analytics is when we use big data to compare all the farms in the area or even Australia and use weather models and things like that to tell you this is the best time to plant, this is the best crop to plant – it can even make crop rotation suggestions,” he said.
Applications already in use in Australia and New Zealand include monitoring of equipment, such as tractors and harvesters, for maintenance purposes.
However, Dorasamy said the lack of an open platform is hampering big data analytics locally, though government and farming groups are working to address the issue.
The potential of data doesn’t just lie in helping the farmers directly. Dorasamy said once farmers are more open to sharing of data among themselves and other third party institutions, there’s scope for a ‘mutually beneficial precision agriculture model’.
The model Dorasamy is suggesting would see IT companies collect and de-identify the data so specific farms can’t be identified, before selling it onto third parties such as future traders or suppliers such as those providing farming equipment, fertilisers or pesticides.
“The revenue generated from that is then shared with the farmers themselves,” he said.