Tag Archives: farming technology

Smart science at regional universities driving future farms

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.

Related: Drones increase crop yield

“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.

Farm tech saves harvest

The state produced 7.2 million tonnes of grain in 2015–16, slightly down on the 7.6 million tonnes harvested in 2014–15. Although it was the seventh consecutive year the state was above its 10-year average, the result was well below the five-year average of 8.2 million tonnes.

Wheat again led the way with 4.3 million tonnes while barley contributed 1.9 million tonnes.

Grain Producers SA CEO Darren Arney says it was a rollercoaster season courtesy of a slow start followed by a cold, wet winter and a very hot, dry spring.

“In the end it was quite incredible that we actually had the harvest that we did,” he says.

“The crops had the potential to yield another 15–20% if we’d had a normal spring so it could have been 8–9 million tonnes of grain.”

Arney says a fall in world grain prices generally had been offset by a falling Australian dollar.

He says varietal advances resulting in better strains of wheat and barley, more efficient matching of fertilisers and the strategic use of herbicides were among advances helping to achieve productivity gains.

“A similar rainfall year was probably 2007 where we produced 5.5–6 million tonnes so we’ve picked up 20–25% because of advancements in research and development and advancements in cropping systems,” says Arney.

The Upper South East and Western Eyre Peninsula regions recorded below average harvests while the Eastern Eyre Peninsula and Mid North regions experienced relatively good seasons, helping them to produce about a million tonnes each.

Extreme weather conditions in late November resulted in a fire in the Pinery area, which spread rapidly and burnt approximately 85,000 ha.

About 22,500 ha of unharvested crops were burnt with estimated crop losses of 60,000 tonnes of grain, 33,000 tonnes of hay and 50,000 tonnes of straw. The fire also destroyed 18,000 sheep and 87 cattle.

Agriculture Minister Leon Bignell says the farm gate value of the crop was estimated at $1.8 billion and the export value was estimated at $2.2 billion.

“Despite the challenging season, South Australia’s grain sector continues to be a powerhouse industry generating more than $4.6 billion in revenue in 2014–15, with approximately 85% exported around the world,” he says.

Primary Industries and Resources South Australia Grains Industry Account Manager Dave Lewis says overall the yields were highly variable.

“Wheat crops were generally more affected by the hot, dry finish with significant tonnages downgraded,” he says.

The future of grain research in South Australia has been secured through a joint $50 million investment by the State Government and the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).

Bignell says the five year deal included $25 million from GRDC and $25 million in-kind support from the State Government’s South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI).

“SARDI is the nation’s leading research provider in farming systems for low to medium rainfall areas, crop protection and improvement as well as projects such as the National Oat Breeding Program,” he says.

“SARDI will commit staff, equipment and resources to the value of $25 million and the GRDC will match the State Government’s investment with a cash investment.”

In other South Australian agriculture news, the State Government has welcomed the Federal Government’s decision to relocate offices of the GRDC and Fisheries Research and Development Corporation to Adelaide.

The latest results from the State Government’s soil improvement project have confirmed sandy soils can be greatly improved, resulting in increased grain yields.

Bignell says the New Horizons Project had shown vastly improved crop production at three trial sites through managing the top 50 cm of soil, rather than the traditional top 10 cm.

– Andrew Spence

This article was first published by The Lead on 10 February 2016. Read the original article here.