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Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture

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Published: 23 Aug 2018

John McPhee

The Tasmanian vegetable industry looks a lot different than it did 5 or 10 years ago, with increasing access to high-tech sensors, apps and web-based programs to aid decision making. The strong interest in precision agriculture means farmers have access to more data than ever before – but what does it all mean?

In 2015, a collaborative project between the Tasmanian Agricultural Productivity Group (TAPG) and the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) was launched to investigate the benefits of adopting precision agriculture technologies. The Precision Agriculture Project, funded by the Tasmanian Government, finished this year and TIA Agricultural Systems Researcher, Mr John McPhee, is reflecting on the findings.

“We set-out to do a number of things in relation to precision agriculture, one of which was to gather information on the extent of crop variability on Tasmanian vegetable farms. Being aware of and understanding the reasons for crop variability are key factors in moving forwards with precision agriculture,” Mr McPhee said.

“Six growers collaborated on the project, and they provided us with access to a specific paddock over three growing seasons from 2015 - 2018. The participating farms represent a range of soil types and enterprise mixes and were located across Tasmania, from Sisters Creek to Tunbridge and Waterhouse.”

Through this project, which used tools including yield monitoring, imagery, soil mapping and digital elevation modelling, Mr McPhee found inherent variability in vegetable crops. Variability within a single crop is often significant, with one instance showing a 14-fold difference in yield within the same paddock.

“In many cases, the variability could be explained by known factors such as waterlogging. We also found that variability exists between seasons, with some areas consistently producing low or high yields while other areas responded differently depending on the crop and the season,” he said.

“Precision agriculture can help growers develop a deeper understanding of these problem areas and identify appropriate management strategies such as variable applications of water, lime and fertilisers.”

Mr McPhee said a major hurdle was that when the project commenced in 2015 most vegetable harvesters in Tasmania were not fitted with yield monitoring technology, which meant the research team relied on targeted hand sampling for much of the trial work.

He’s noticed some changes over recent years, including an increase in the number of harvesters being fitted with yield monitors.

“There is a lot of interest in precision agriculture and I’m aware of potato, pea and carrot harvesters in Tasmania that now have yield monitoring capability. Access to this technology is still a limitation in the vegetable sector, but its presence has definitely increased over the last few years,” Mr McPhee said.

“It’s difficult to say how much the awareness from this project has influenced the uptake in precision agriculture technology in Tasmania, but I believe that every drop of information helps.

“A main extension platform for this project is the annual Precision Ag Expo, held in April, which attracts more than 200 attendees, and will continue on for another four years after the completion of the project.”

Mr McPhee said the increase in monitoring technology means the vegetable sector has a tremendous opportunity to gather data. However, he also highlighted that just because there is a lot of accurately collected data doesn’t mean it can all be put to meaningful use.

“Our capacity to measure stuff far outweighs our ability to manage it,” he said. “For example, we can capture images down to less than one quarter of a square metre, but current technology used for applying fertilisers and sprays is limited to a management zone of 150 square metres or more.”

While there is still some way to go until growers can manage crops at the same level they can measure them, Mr McPhee said the ability to capture detailed information is beneficial as it gives growers increased confidence to make informed management decisions.

TIA is a joint venture between the University of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Government.

For more information about the Precision Agriculture Project, contact John McPhee.