Making Precision Agriculture Work In Australia

Australia crop
Most broadacre growers in Australia already use some forms of precision ag on their land, but the opportunity to expand this is still infinite despite a unique set of challenges in the country.

Editor’s note: Reinder Prins is Market Development Manager for Cotton Growers Service in Wee Waa, NSW, Australia, where he is responsible for the company’s Precision Agriculture program. In the article below, he introduces the unique set of circumstances that make it challenging to fit precision ag technologies into Australian agriculture. In future stories on PrecisionAg.com, Prins will share more insight into the state of the precision ag industry in his country, including where it has come from and where it is headed.

With the introduction of an increasing amount of services and products that can be classified as ‘Precision Agriculture’, it is easy to lose track of what the actual premise of precision agriculture is. Depending on who you ask, the definition of precision agriculture will include the observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops with the goal of creating a more uniform crop. So in other words, by looking at small parts of a field instead of treating the field as one whole management unit, growers get the opportunity to work on individual management zones and by doing this they aim to lift the overall profits of a field.

Growers around the world face a unique set of circumstances and, depending on weather, soil, demand for commodities and other factors, will use precision ag tools in a completely different way to suit their situation. I grew up in a farming environment in The Netherlands but have spent the last 6 years working in Australian agriculture; I doubt there is a bigger difference in circumstances between any two countries in the world! Many new technologies that hail from North America or Europe have an excellent fit in those environments with fertile soils, relatively high annual rainfall and a long established farming culture, whereas in Australia we sometimes struggle to see the fit in our environment or are unable to rationalize the spending necessary to introduce a particular technology.

The way I see it, in places like The Netherlands and other European countries, as well as the corn belt in the U.S. for example, rainfall is the great unknown variable, which certain precision ag technologies attempt to mitigate. In this case, it is relatively easy for a grower to rationalize spending money on a new technique, as it can help them deal with an environmental influence that is always present. Some examples of this technology are planting at a variable depth, variable rate seeding, variable rate nitrogen applications, etc. In Australia on the other hand, large areas of prime agricultural land rely on water from reservoirs for irrigation whereas other growers plant dryland crops with minimal prospects of in-crop rain.

In the area where I work for example, the average annual rainfall is only 26 inches, whereas in the 2016-17 summer crop season, we had 52 consecutive days above 98 degrees (37 Celsius). Thus, rainfall is not the variable that needs mitigating in this case! Often, irrigated yields in Australia are more like the rain-grown yields in the big crop growing areas of the northern hemisphere, while the yield of rain-grown crops (or dryland crops as we like to call them) in Australia are something else completely. In our area it is not unheard of for growers not to be able to plant crops for 3 years straight due to lack of moisture, only to be hit by a big flood in the year after.

This then presents the next issue: with irregular plantings and marginal profits, how do you incorporate precision ag in dryland situations? And on irrigated fields, the amount of water applied can be decided by the grower – due to lack of rainfall there is very little variability here in most years, so where does precision ag have a fit in this situation?

I often get told by friends in the U.S. that growers in certain areas are happy to spend $20 per acre per year on precision ag services as the benefits are pretty obvious. Where dryland yields in Australia are often marginal and even the big irrigation reservoirs only have an average reliability of being able to provide water to irrigators every 3 out of 5 years, what is a reasonable amount of money for a grower to spend on precision ag?

Most broadacre growers in Australia already use some forms of precision ag on their land, but the opportunity to expand this is still infinite. In my future stories for PrecisionAg.com I would like to share with you the story of precision agriculture in Australia; where it has come from, where we are now and where we are headed. Feel free to contact me on reinderprins@cgs.com.au in the meantime!

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One comment on “Making Precision Agriculture Work In Australia

  1. You raise some very good points Reinder, I farmed for 30 years, the last 10 revolved around implementing a controlled traffic ,permanent bed min till farming system in Sugar cane under full irrigation. Our aim was to return the best $/Ha that we could, P.A was a big part of that, understanding paddock variability and managing those zones to their potential, with nutrients, and irrigation were our biggest drivers. Economics is in my opinion the key driver, once we have reliable information about paddock yield variability we can then look at the % difference in yield zones, then put a $ figure on it and decide if it is worth investigating.

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