Brett Whelan: A Pioneer in Australian Precision Agriculture
Editor’s note: Brett Whelan, an Associate Professor of Precision Agriculture at the University of Sydney – Australia, is one of the recipients of the 2019 PrecisionAg Awards of Excellence. Here he shares his first experiences with ag technology, what he enjoys most about his profession, the state of precision ag in Australia, and much more.
Widely known for his precision agriculture research in Australia, Brett Whelan is a true pioneer in the field. He began his career in precision’s early stages, where he focused on understanding within-field soil and yield variability for site-specific crop management. In the early 2000s, he co-created the program Vesper, which enables maps to be created from sensor data (e.g. yield), or from soil data. Unlike other programs at the time, Vesper could deal with large datasets well, and was a big breakthrough in Australia, and internationally.
Whelan currently serves as head of the Precision Agriculture Laboratory and Associate Professor at the University of Sydney. He convenes the annual Symposium on PA in Australasia, first held by the ACPA in 1997, and now one of the world’s longest running national forums for developments in precision agriculture. His recent work has focused on implementing robotics and automation of precision agriculture in the field. He has also been a big advocate for moving precision from focusing on single fields in isolation, to combining information across many fields, and farms, and over many seasons.
“Brett is world-class researcher in precision agriculture and is a selfless and giving person who is always willing to support those around him,” his nominator, Patrick Filippi, says. “His research and outreach have truly helped shape precision agriculture to make it what it is today.”
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ON THE BEGINNING: “I thought agriculture was something you could use, to do some good. When I started my PhD, we were looking at spatial variation in moisture in breeding wheat. That was around the time we had drought here in Australia, in the early ‘90s. We saw that the yield monitors were coming out from Micro-Trak and Ag Leader, so we went over to America and grabbed one and brought it back. We were looking at the idea of spatial variation in the soil, and we said, ‘OK, now we can measure on the crops as well.’ It just all fit together pretty easily.
“The standard process back then is still the same now – you put the same amount of everything out everywhere over field. We know there is variability in land and how much it can produce, so it makes better sense to look at the potential of the land to what we put on it.”
ON BECOMING MORE EFFICIENT AND UNTAPPED POTENTIAL: “Australia is the birthplace of spot-spraying of wheat, where instead of putting a blanket amount of herbicide out you can identify where weeds are. In terms of that process, we have improved efficiency by probably 80 percent in herbicide application. Autosteer, which was developed in 1997, means you don’t overlap. The savings there is about 10 percent every year.
“Is there untapped potential? Yes. We still don’t really have a great handle on the idea of matching yield potential with seasonal weather, and then with what we put on to grow our plants. That link between those three things, there is still plenty of room to move.”
ON COMBINING NEW TECHNOLOGIES: “We haven’t gotten to the point of using some technologies properly in Australia, like the GreenSeeker and CropCircle. We need to match them with moisture sensors. In Australia, we use electromagnetic induction to measure variability in the soil. Combining sensors together is where we’re trying to go – using moisture sensors in the soil plus maps with how variable the soil is to get us that next jump in efficiency, because at the moment we can’t predict the weather very well. Having in-season measurements will be a useful tool. We can tie them into things like a protein sensor, which is not used widely enough yet. Nitrogen is what we’re all trying to apply better. That’s the big goal: to get our nitrogen application much more efficient.
ON THE NEXT BIG STEP CHANGE: “The protein sensor has been around, but it is not well used because the big manufacturers don’t supply them, except for Case in Australia. It brings the quality aspect to farming and precision agriculture. Yield has always been king, we always try to optimize yield, and in terms of payment, it is the key. Bringing measurement of changing quality across products I think is the next big step change. If you can distinguish the quality of your crop better, you can use that to market it as a niche … It’s a big scale we’re talking about. You can do that in horticulture and viticulture already. To get that into grain growing is an admirable goal.”
ON WHAT HE ENJOYS MOST: “I enjoy the whole package. I enjoy research and I certainly enjoy the interaction with farmers, and the idea of developing the process and promoting precision ag. I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without all our work with commercial farmers that are interested in becoming more efficient. We’ve been running an annual conference for 22 years now, and that’s a great part. We move it around the country every year. Engaging with people been fantastic. I enjoy teaching, and interaction with students is always good. When you get students who have been learning about the fundamentals of growing plants, then they get to precision ag, and see the technology and start putting things together about variability and how they might change things. It’s a bit of an eye opener for them.”
ON HIS MENTOR: “Professor Alex McBratney was my supervisor for my phD. Together, he and I started the ball rolling here in Australia with precision ag. He was a very big influence in my career and still is; I still work with him.”
ON PRECISION AG IN AUSTRALIA: “Producers here get much less support (than in the United States.) Autosteer here has been big, with 90 percent of farmers on big scale farms; that’s probably the most uptake in the world. Because we have to try to be efficient with dollars as well as inputs, people are cautious about taking things where they don’t see the advantage straightaway. I think the thing we’re behind on is variable rate application of inputs – there is slow uptake everywhere in the world, but Americans are further ahead in that than we are. But, we’d be compatible.”