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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
and its use is always a key focus of the university’s research.
Innovation in farming
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.
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.
UNE’s campus in Armidale, level-five water restrictions are in place following
years of crippling drought.
in Australia is very responsive to our climate. Our growers are governed by
when, and by how much water they get,” says Dr Flavel.
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.
Sub-soil profile changes could double yields
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.
the University’s SMART farm, moisture sensors show there’s still substantial
water being held in sub-soils after harvest.
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.
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
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.
water deep in the soil profile could potentially double yields in some
Treating hydrophobic soils
research area is the massive tracts of soil across Australia’s croplands —
nearly five million hectares — which are non-wetting or water-repellent.
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.
this phenomenon has involved some tricky physics at a microscopic level,” he
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
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
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
Griffith University, in south-east Queensland, the Australian Rivers Institute
has a range of industry and government partners through the ARI Toxicology
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.
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.
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.”
Sally Leigo creates tools for efficient farm management. Whenever a farmer logs into the Cloud and discovers cattle that are 100 km away are at a good weight to sell, Sally Leigo smiles because her research in agricultural science helped to make it possible.
Helping farmers manage their properties efficiently and sustainably drives this agricultural science researcher, who was recently appointed as Project Manager for the CRC for Developing Northern Australia.
Growing up on a property in western NSW, it was a given that Leigo would end up in farming on some level. After completing an agricultural science degree at the University of Sydney, she started work in artificial insemination. For 13 years Leigo managed research projects for the beef industry, including developing a tool to help farmers know when to sell stock and which pasture is suitable for grazing.
The tool captures cattle weight when stock walk over a weighbridge on their way to watering yards and sends the data via satellite to famers. Satellites also record the greenness of pastures — if cattle are losing weight, it indicates poor pasture. Farmers can then decide when (and whether) to sell, to move cattle to another pasture or to use feed supplements.
Previously farmers only weighed cattle at sale because properties in remote Australia can be thousands of square kilometres in area — comparable to small European countries. “To weigh your cattle on a regular basis is a big undertaking,” says Sally.
In her new role at the CRC Northern Australia, Sally hopes to use her experience in agricultural science to improve opportunities in the agriculture sector.
She is also looking forward to moving into new areas such as traditional owner business-led development.
Disruption can mean a lot of things. Dictionary definitions include “a forcible separation” or division into parts. More recently it has come to mean a radical change in industry or business. This brings to mind huge technological innovations. But what if it’s as simple as realising that a handheld device for detecting nitrogen could also be used to gauge how much feed there is in a paddock; that drones can be adapted to measure pest infestations; that communities can proactively track the movement of feral animals.
These are just some of the projects that Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) are working on that have the capacity to change crop and livestock outcomes in Australia, improve our environment and advance our financial systems.
Data and environment
Mapping pest threats
Invasive animals have long been an issue in Australia. But a program developed by the Invasive Animals CRC called FeralScan is taking advantage of the widespread use of smartphones to combat this problem.
The program involves an app that enables landholders to share information about pest animals and the impacts they cause to improve local management programs.
Peter West, FeralScan project coordinator at the NSW Department of Primary Industries, says the team wouldn’t have thought of a photo-sharing app without genuine community consultation.
The project has been running for six years and can record sightings, impacts and control activities for a wide range of pest species in Australia, including rabbits, foxes, feral cats, cane toads and myna birds. West says that it now has 70,000 records and photographs, and more than 14,000 registered users across the country.
“For regional management of high-impacting pest species, such as wild dogs, what we’re providing is a tool that can help farmers and biosecurity stakeholders detect and respond quickly to pest animal threats,” says West.
“It enables them to either reprioritise where they are going to do control work or to sit down and work with other regional partners: catchment groups, local biosecurity authorities and the broader community.”
The app won the Environment and Energy Minister’s award for a Cleaner Environment in the field of Research and Science excellence at the Banksia Foundation 2016 Awards in December. Recent improvements to the app include the ability to monitor rabbit bio-control agents.Plans for the future include upgrading the technology to alert farmers to nearby pest threats, says West.
Also in the information space, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC (BNHCRC) is investigating reasons we don’t pay attention to or ignore messages that notify us of an impending fire or floods. Researchers are using theories of marketing, crisis communications and advertising to create messaging most likely to assist people to get out of harm’s way.
“The way we personally assess risk has a big impact on how we interpret messages. If I have a higher risk tolerance I will probably underestimate risk,” says Vivienne Tippett, BNHCRC project lead researcher and professor at Queensland University of Technology. “We’ve worked with many emergency services agencies to assist them to reconstruct their messages.”
Instead of an emergency message with a brief heading, followed by the agency name and then a quite technical paragraph about weather conditions and geography, Tippett’s team has worked on moving the key message up to the top and translating it into layperson terms. For example, a message might now say something like: “This is a fast-moving, unpredictable fire in the face of strong winds.”
Tippett’s team is constantly working with emergency services to make sure their findings are made use of as quickly as possible. “The feedback from the community is that yes, they understand it better and they would be more likely to comply” she says.
The Plant Biosecurity CRC is using unmanned aerial systems (UAS or drones) to improve ways to detect pest infestations in vast crops. Project leader Brian McCornack is based at the Kansas State University in the US.
“The driver for using unmanned aerial systems has been in response to a need to improve efficiency [reduce costs and increase time] for surveillance activities over large areas, given limited resources,” says McCornack. “The major game-changer is the affordability of existing UAS technology and sophisticated sensors.”
The project is now in its third year and adds an extra layer of data to the current, more traditional system, which relies on a crop consultant making a visual assessment based on a small sample area of land, often from a reduced vantage point.
The international collaboration between the US and the Australian partners at QUT, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, and the NSW Department of Primary Industries means the project has access to a wide range of data on species of biosecurity importance.
The CRC for Spatial Information (CRCSI) has also been working on repurposing an existing gadget, in this case to improve the accuracy of estimating pasture biomass. Currently, graziers use techniques such as taking height measurements or eyeballing to determine how much feed is available to livestock in a paddock. However, such techniques can result in huge variability in estimates of pasture biomass, and often underestimate the feed-on-offer.
Professor David Lamb, leader of the Biomass Business project, says graziers underestimate green pasture biomass by around 50%. There could be a huge potential to improve farm productivity by getting these measures right.
Through case studies conducted on commercial farms in Victoria, Meat and Livestock Australia found that improving feed allocation could increase productivity by 11.1%, or up to $96 per hectare on average, for sheep enterprises, and 9.6% ($52 per hectare) for cattle enterprises.
The CRCSI and Meat and Livestock Australia looked at a number of devices that measure NDVI (the normalised difference vegetation index), like the Trimble Green Seeker® and the Holland Crop Circle®. The data collected by these devices can then be entered into the CRCSI app to provide calibrated estimates of green pasture biomass.
Graziers can also create their own calibrations as they come to understand how accurate, or inaccurate, their own estimates have been. These crowd-sourced calibrations can be shared with other graziers to increase the regional coverage of calibrations for a range of pasture types throughout the year.
In July 2016, the federal government announced funding for a partner project “Accelerating precision agriculture to decision agriculture”. The Data to Decisions Cooperative Research Centre (D2D CRC) has partnered with all 15 rural research and development corporations (RDCs) on the project.
“The goal of the project is to help producers use big data to make informed on-farm decisions to drive profitability,” says D2D CRC lead Andrew Skinner.
He says that while the project may not provide concrete answers to specific data-related questions, it will provide discussion projects for many issues and concerns that cross different rural industries, such as yield optimisation and input efficiencies.
Collaboration between the 15 RDCs is a first in Australia and has the potential to reveal information that could shape a gamut of agricultural industries. “Having all the RDCs come together in this way is unique,” says Skinner.
The Capital Markets CRC, in conjunction with industry, has developed a system that allows it to issue and circulate many digital currencies, securely and with very fast processing times – and because it is a first mover in this space, has the potential to be a global disruptor.
Digi.cash is a spinoff of the Capital Markets CRC and is specifically designed for centrally issued money, like national currencies.
“Essentially we have built the printing press for electronic coins and banknotes, directly suited to issuing national currencies in digital form, as individual electronic coins and banknotes that can be held and passed on to others,” says digi.cash founder Andreas Furche.
A currency in digi.cash’s system is more than a balance entry in an accounts database, it is an actual encrypted note or coin. The act of transfer of an electronic note itself becomes the settlement. This is in contrast to legacy systems, where transaction ledgers are created that require settlement in accounts. So there is no settlement or clearing period.
“We have a advantage globally because we were on the topic relatively early and we have a group of people who have built a lot of banking and stock exchange technologies in the past, so we were able to develop a product which held up to the IT securities standards used in banking right away,” says Furche.
Digi.cash is currently operating with a limit of total funds on issue of $10 million. It is looking to partner with industry players and be in a leading position in the development of the next generation financial system, which CMCRC says will be based on digitised assets.
Passive radar, as developed by the Defence Science and Technology Group (DST), has been around for some time, but is being refined and re-engineered in an environment where radiofrequency energy is much more common.
As recognition of the disruptive capabilities of this technology, the Passive Radar team at DST was recently accepted into the CSIRO’s innovation accelerator program, ON Accelerate.
Active radar works by sending out a very large blast of energy and listening for reflections of that energy, but at the same time it quickly notifies anyone nearby of the transmitter’s whereabouts.
“Passive radar is the same thing, but we don’t transmit any energy – we take advantage of the energy that is already there,” explains passive radar team member James Palmer.
The technology is being positioned as a complement for active radar. It can be used where there are more stringent regulations around radar spectrum – such as the centre of a city as opposed to an isolated rural area. Radio spectrum is also a finite resource and there is now so much commercial demand that the allocation for Defence is diminishing.
Although the idea of passive radar is not a new one – one of the first radar presentations in the 1930s was a passive radar demonstration – the increase in radiofrequency energy from a variety of sources these days means it is more efficient. For example, signals from digital TV are much more suited to passive radar than analogue TV.
“We are at the point where we are seeing some really positive results and we’ve been developing commercial potential for this technology,” Palmer says. “For a potentially risky job like a radar operator the ability to see what’s around you [without revealing your position], that’s very game changing.”
There is also no need to apply for an expensive spectrum licence. The Australian team is also the first in the world to demonstrate that it can use Pay TV satellites as a viable form of background radiofrequency energy. The company name Silentium Defence Pty Ltd has been registered for the commercial use of the technology.
Intellectual property has had a large role to play in moving wheat breeding from being almost entirely publicly funded in the 1990s to being completely funded by the private sector today.
Wheat accounts for more than a quarter of the total value of all crops produced in Australia. In terms of all agricultural commodities produced nationwide, wheat is second only to cattle. In the 2015/16 season, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences forecasted the gross value of wheat to be $7.45 billion, with exports worth $5.8 billion.
Western Australia leads the way in wheat exports, generating half of Australia’s total annual wheat production and sending more than 95 per cent offshore. A major export avenue for Western Australian growers is the wheat used for the production of noodles. One million tonnes of Udon noodle grain is exported to Japan and Korea every year at a value of $350 million.
The Australian wheat industry has gone through significant transformation in the last 20 years and the Australian IP Report 2015 shows innovation in wheat breeding is quite healthy. Over the past decade, Triticum (the scientific genus for wheat) has had the third highest number of plant breeder’s rights (PBR) applications submitted in Australia, behind only Rosa (roses) and Prunus (trees and shrubs).
The Plant Breeder’s Rights Act 1994 (PBR Act) allows an owner of a plant variety the ability to not only sell their variety, but also to collect royalties at any point in its use. This provision led to the introduction of end point royalties (EPR) in the years following the PBR Act’s ratification. For wheat growing, this is a royalty paid on the total grain harvested by the growers of a PBR protected variety.
Kerrie Gleeson of Australian Grains Technologies explains how EPR have invigorated the wheat industry saying, “Prior to the year 2000, 95 per cent of wheat breeding programs were in the public sector, either funded by universities, Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) levies, or state governments.”
Moving ahead to the present day, Australian wheat breeding is now completely funded by the private sector due to the income generated by EPR.
Before EPR, royalties were paid to breeders when they sold their seed to farmers. Tress Walmsley, CEO of InterGrain, estimates that while a new variety of grain costs around $3 million to breed, under the old seed-based royalty system breeders only received around $50 000 per variety. This was a commercially unsustainable system and saw a decline in public investment for developing new varieties.
The EPR system radically changed the commercial value of developing new grain varieties in Australia. By deferring collection of royalties to the time of harvest, the initial cost of purchasing seed is lower.
An example of the EPR system in action is ‘Drysdale’, a wheat variety developed by CSIRO to cope with Australia’s low rainfall. Currently a royalty of $1 is charged to famers for every tonne produced. While this may not seem like much, considering the production of wheat averages around 25 million tonnes per year, the return from EPR really adds up.
Income received from EPR helps support the continuing research into developing new varieties and reduces the reliance on public funding.
The advantage of the EPR system is that plant breeders share the risk with farmers. If a harvest is low, for example during a drought, the farmers will be affected, and as a result the returns to the breeders through the EPR will be down. This gives breeders an incentive to develop varieties that are resilient and high yielding; the more successful the crop is, the bigger the return for both breeders and growers.
THE AUSTRALIAN WHEAT INDUSTRY HAS GONE THROUGH SIGNIFICANT TRANSFORMATION IN THE LAST 20 YEARS.
Wheat breeding in Australia is now a highly competitive industry. The major wheat breeding companies now have access to new technologies and resources through foreign investment and partnerships.
The EPR system in Australia has been dominated by wheat. The first EPR variety was released in 1996. Over 260 EPR varieties are listed for the 2015/16 harvesting season. Of these varieties, over 130 are wheat.
However, implementing the EPR system has seen its share of challenges. “When we first launched back in 1996…we actually had almost two competing systems”, Tress says. “We had one system commence in Western Australia which I was responsible for, and then we also had a company start an end point royalty system on the east coast.”
“Initially each plant breeding company, each state government and each seed company worked independently. We really made the big gains when we came together and worked it out collectively”, she says.
The development of an EPR industry collection system began in 2007 when a number of Australia’s major plant breeding organisations formed the EPR Steering Committee.
“The key component is working with the grain growers and listening to their feedback and making changes to how we collect the EPR so it is actually an easier system for them to utilise”, says Tress. “The industry standard license was one of our first achievements.”
The EPR is ultimately reliant on the honesty of farmers declaring the varieties they are growing. “Our system works in finding ways where the PBR Act gives you the level of protection you need, and you dovetail in contract law where you need some extra assistance”, adds Tress.
The integrity of EPR collection is maintained in various ways, including harvest declaration forms and reports from grain traders and bulk handlers. An industry standard contract has also been developed to simplify the collection process. The competitive nature of the EPR system means farmers are given a choice when deciding on which grain to grow. If they are paying a royalty on seed they are growing, they want to be confident the crop is high yielding, disease resistant and suitable for their region.
Even though research and development into wheat has been growing in recent years, the industry faces ongoing challenges. While Australia has so far avoided the notoriously devastating Ug99, a fungal wheat stem rust which can cause entire crops to be lost, farmers do tackle other varieties of stripe, stem and leaf rusts across the country. Nationwide, 72 per cent of Australia’s wheat growing area is susceptible to at least one rust pathogen.
This highlights the importance of continued investment into the development of new wheat breeds.
“We need the research to create high-yielding, disease and pest resistant agricultural crops,” Professor Philip Pardey says, who was a keynote speaker at the 2015 International Wheat Conference held in Sydney.
The International Year of Pulses aims to raise awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production. The celebration is an opportunity to encourage connections throughout the food chain – and one Australian team of researchers is ahead of the game.
Murdoch University professor John Howieson is now working on a new licence structure for the upcoming release of lebeckia. This grain, originally from South Africa, is considered the ‘holy grail’ breakthrough to rectify the shortage of summertime feed for livestock.
The new National Innovation and Science Agenda will support further agricultural research both with research funds and through programs that bring together universities, researchers and producers. You can find out more at innovation.gov.au.
This article was originally published by IP Australia in IP – Your Business Edge Issue 1 2016. Read the original article here.