Australia: Using Data in Winter Crop Planting

Plant ’19 is getting closer every day and I’m sure that many growers throughout the Midwest will be working hard to ensure that their planting equipment is ready for another period of intense use. In Australia, Harvest ’19 for summer crops has been going for a while and, due to dry conditions, is marginal and still going on in many places. Growers here are looking towards the planting window for winter crops, which opens somewhere in the next two months depending on crop and location. Most areas still need a lot of rain before anything will happen, but growers are getting prepared nonetheless.

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Planting summer crops is given much attention, with companies like John Deere and Precision Planting working hard to ensure that corn, cotton, soy, and other crops are planted just right. These technologies are, rightfully, finding high adoption rates around the world and growers understand the benefits of adopting such technology. It has therefore always been a bit of a mystery to me why high-tech improvements in planter performance, certainly in Australia, is almost exclusively used for summer crops and rarely seen in winter crops.

With most growers realizing that improving plant spacing of wheat and barley, for example, is not easily done as the equipment that is currently used, seeder bars and air carts, are not easily adapted to precision systems. There are certainly benefits to accurate spacing and variable planting rates for these crops, but the rough surface of no-till fields and the use of tines that don’t ride as smooth as summer crop planters, makes this a hard feat to accomplish.

When growers analyze multiple layers of field data, they quite often find that in winter crops, emergence maps have a high correlation with yield maps. Not every grower is keeping track of his farm records and storing his geospatial data in such a way that is conducive to rigorous analyses, but those that do often find that emergence issues have a high effect on yield expectations. In broadacre winter crops in Australia there are many issues that can lead to patchy emergence: changes in soil types, differences in stubble-cover from last season, and soil depth, to only name a few. These issues all have one thing in common however: they cause different levels of soil moisture to occur in fields.

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When growers and agronomists set up their winter crop planters in Australia, they aim for a general depth and rarely is this changed within a field as changing planting depth is not easy nor quick. Where there’s a need, there’s a solution as well however, and one example I recently saw is David Findlay from Moisture Plant Technologies (MPT), based in Orange, New South Wales, who has developed a tine-based, tech-enabled broadacre planter to tackle just this issue.

By using a mixture of Artificial Intelligence and Integrated Sensors, the MPT planter can monitor the conditions of the soil live while planting and auto-adjust itself to optimal seeding depth. The same sensors can also be used to adjust the seeding rate, depending on the soil profile, and deliver a layer of soil data to the grower that can be analyzed in combination with other layers, such as yield, post-season.

While companies like Precision Planting get lots of attention for products such as SmartDepth, smaller and less-visible businesses like MPT offer equally innovative products that can make a huge difference to large segments of growers. When your planter adjusts depth and seeding rate automatically based on soil conditions, growers are enabled to plant more uniform crops and ensure they get maximum returns on stored soil-moisture. And in areas like Australia, where moisture is the single most important factor in broadacre winter cropping, it’s companies like MPT that can help growers advance.

Not every grower is using all his farm equipment and capabilities yet to capture all data that gets generated on-farm, but it’s technologies like the MPT tine that clearly show why it is so important to capture and store layers of data together with accurate farm records and production budgets and performance reports. It is only with this data that growers are able to make an informed decision as to what their production-limiting factors are and what the potential return on investment will be for technologies, like MPT, that mitigate these limiting factors. So yes, moisture is key in growing crops – but it really helps to have data that can put this into numbers!

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