Smart science at regional universities driving future farms

March 09, 2020

The University of New England’s SMART farms are outdoor laboratories where scientists and growers test out innovations that make a real difference in the field.

SMART farms are outdoor laboratories where scientists and growers test out innovations

Outside Armidale, in northern NSW, eight different properties covering 3900 hectares of woodland, grassland, water sources and pasture comprise the University of New England’s Sustainable Manageable Accessible Rural Technologies (SMART) Farms, an outdoor laboratory for the Precision Agriculture team.

These farms include a commercial sheep property, 1000-head cattle feedlot, long-term agronomy plots, a genomic research centre and teaching lab featuring innovative farming technologies that are tested, assessed and monitored on working farms.

UNE crop scientist Dr Richard Flavel says agricultural science works best when universities are in partnership with industry.

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“Universities have an opportunity to bring in expertise and to do the things that industry hasn’t got the time, or the economic drivers, to do themselves, and to really boost innovation.”

For more than three years, UNE scientists have gathered data from a wide network of more than 100 soil moisture probes that create a ‘living map’ reporting on the moisture levels across a segment of the property.

Other sensor networks report on the water use in trees, the growth of pasture and even the amount of honey being produced in the property’s beehives.

Water and its use is always a key focus of the university’s research.

Innovation in farming

Dr Flavel says regional universities are well placed to explore scientific solutions for some of the big challenges facing Australia’s farmers, most of these relating to how best to use limited water resources.

“All of the innovative systems that have come online in farming during the past 30 years — from no-till systems, to maintaining and improving groundcover, to retaining stubble — these are all essentially about managing water,” he says.

At UNE’s campus in Armidale, level-five water restrictions are in place following years of crippling drought.

“Farming in Australia is very responsive to our climate. Our growers are governed by when, and by how much water they get,” says Dr Flavel.

He says with just five per cent of Australia’s crops irrigated, cropping industries in Australia rely on rainfall, and most water for crops is stored in the soil.

“Our research looks at current water use by dryland crops and grazing pasture, and how best to make use of the water when it lands on paddocks,” he says.

University of New England researcher Dr Richard Flavel
University of New England crop scientist Dr Richard Flavel at the Precision Agriculture SMART farm outdoor laboratory.

Sub-soil profile changes could double yields

Decades of research in universities have delivered real improvements in agricultural topsoil structures, with growers now seeing remarkable improvements from techniques that improve soil sodicity, salinity and acidity. The next step is sub-soil management, explains Dr Flavel.

At the University’s SMART farm, moisture sensors show there’s still substantial water being held in sub-soils after harvest.

“When a crop has finished, the water in the sub-soil profile should have been used up and turned into wheat. High sub-soil water shows that plants haven’t been able to access water at depths — that’s a reduction of yield potential for the grower,” he says.

Sub-soils, which sit 15cm or deeper below the surface, are now recognised as an important area for further improvement. Addressing this problem is a focus for more research.

“We’re currently looking at ways to fix sodic or saline sub-soils to improve how much our plants can use the water that falls on the paddock,” says Dr Flavel.

“Unlocking water deep in the soil profile could potentially double yields in some situations.”

Treating hydrophobic soils

Another research area is the massive tracts of soil across Australia’s croplands — nearly five million hectares — which are non-wetting or water-repellent.

University scientists found that some particles of soil developed a water-resistant coating, leaving rainfall to evaporate from the surface rather than penetrate the ground for plants’ use.

“Understanding this phenomenon has involved some tricky physics at a microscopic level,” he says.

Dr Flavel’s research is looking at ways to address this problem, which can include wetting agents, bringing up clay from deep in the soil profile and changing crops.

“Growers are very innovative, and as a scientist that’s exciting. We’ve got a group which is keen to work with our scientists to find and adopt new discoveries.”

Fran Molloy

Cleaning up our waterways

Dr Steven Melvin, research fellow at the Australian Rivers Institute

Science at regional and rural universities can work with local land managers, government agencies and communities to monitor the health of waterways, assess problems on the ground, and to help develop evidence-based solutions that minimise human impact and deliver the best outcomes for sustainable communities.

At Griffith University, in south-east Queensland, the Australian Rivers Institute has a range of industry and government partners through the ARI Toxicology Research Program.

“Our research looks at the source of contaminants, their fate or where they end up, and the effect,” says Dr Steven Melvin, who is a research fellow at the ARI.

Tens of thousands of different chemicals enter our waterways, but most have a relatively low impact, he says. The ARI collaborates with industry and government agencies to identify contaminants that are potentially damaging and looks at ways to treat and remediate these.

“Largely through industry-collaborative, university-led research, we now have advanced technology, such as reverse osmosis, which uses energy and pressure to treat wastewater by forcing it through a semi-permeable membrane that filters out minute chemical compounds that could cause effects in the environment.”

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.

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