The farms of the future will be sown using sensors and apps that reveal the hidden factors that could make all the difference in a world where climate change is becoming increasingly prominent.
As leaders in agriculture continue to integrate their operations with these technological solutions, we’ll see a transformation in how decisions are made around productivity, efficiency, and sustainability.
In Australia, water and soil management is one of the greatest challenges facing the agriculture industry, and according to Dugald Close, Associate Director of Research for the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) at the University of Tasmania, shifts in the global climate have made things more complex than ever before.
“Our water availability is significantly affected by climate change and climate variability, and our soil resource is finite and precious,” he explains.
Researchers at TIA are focussed on the interactions between water, various soil types, and crops and livestock, with the aim of ensuring continuity of food supply, the quality of farmed produce, and the sustainability of agriculture in Australia and beyond.
And their work is yielding significant savings and productivity benefits.
Through detailed analysis and optimisation of irrigation systems, TIA researchers have delivered major impacts to Tasmanian dairy farmers.
One farm experienced power savings of more than 60 percent, equating to a $20,000 reduction in annual energy costs. Another farm was able to double pasture growth rates by making adjustments to its irrigation schedule.
The work is part of the Smarter Irrigation for Profit project, led by TIA’s Dr James Hills. In collaboration with the National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture (NCEA), the project is exploring the adoption of an autonomous control platform called VARIwise for dairy systems.
This system, originally developed by the NCEA for cotton, is able to control automated pivot irrigation systems based on weather, soil moisture, and growth measures, to deliver just the right amount of water to pastures as needed. It can even vary the volumes delivered to different areas of a single paddock to meet their diverse moisture requirements.
As Associate Professor Close explains, fertiliser use is inextricably linked to water application.
“If you don’t have enough water in the soil, plants can’t access nutrients,” he says. “And waterlogging restricts the plants’ access to air, which they need for respiration to optimise growth.”
“Over-irrigating also causes leaching [the loss of water-soluble nutrients], particularly of nitrogen and potassium, which has down-catchment sustainability impacts, as well as being a direct financial loss in terms of applied fertiliser.”
Research led by TIA soil scientist Dr Bill Cotching is ensuring that farmers are distributing fertiliser in the most efficient way. Insights from this work are predicted to save six participating Tasmanian farm businesses a total of $280,000 over a two-year period.
Another flagship water governance project for TIA is Water for Profit – a three-year collaboration with the Tasmanian Government and local industry, designed to equip farmers with the right skills and information to increase profits and sustainability from their investment in water.
The team, led by Sue Hinton, has engaged with more than 50 farming businesses around Tasmania through field days, learning groups, and workshops. Participants attest to the value of the program, with many highlighting the networking opportunities between farmers as one of the most valuable aspects.
“Those partners become our champions,” says Associate Professor Close.
Part and pasture of a bigger picture
TIA has developed and applied scientific grazing-management principles that have helped to increase average pasture productivity in the state from eight to 11 tonnes per hectare in the last decade. Some Tasmanian farms reporting greater than 100 percent increases in pasture production per hectare between 2012 and 2016.
Such enormous improvements come down to management at ground zero: monitoring the factors that influence grass growth; accurately predicting that growth; and moving cattle away from paddocks at the optimum time to allow grasses to rapidly recover.
Working with researchers at TIA, Montana Farm in northern Tasmania reported that, “This farm used to have 200 hectares, 280 cows, and we used to only ever cut 30 bales of silage off it. Now, with 800 cows, we’re cutting 600 bales off the same dairy block.”
Integration of real-time sensors, and weather and climate data with pasture-growth models also led to the development of the online Sense-T Pasture Predictor – a joint project of TIA, led by Drs Richard Rawnsley and Matthew Harrison, in collaboration with the CSIRO.
This free app provides a 90-day pasture forecast for seven locations across the Tasmania’s main beef and dairy areas. Future work is aiming to extend this application to other pastoral regions throughout Australia and overseas, while also tailoring the forecast to individual farms.
A toast to fine wines
A major challenge in wine grape production is damage caused by powdery mildew and botrytis bunch rot,which in 2010 saw annual losses for Australian vineyards of an estimated $128 million.
Collaborating with the CSIRO, Wine Australia, and local Tasmanian vineyards, TIA’s Dr Kathy Evans is leading research into disease patterns and the conditions influencing outbreaks.
This has informed the development of software that combines data from sensors measuring temperature and moisture conditions with BoM forecasts to alert growers of the relative risk of a disease outbreak.
In 2013, the vineyard manager at Clover Hill Wines, which trialled practices informed by TIA’s research, reported that, “For the first time in 10 years I can’t find any powdery mildew. It appears to have worked!”
TIA estimates that growers were able to save $10 million a year between 2012 and 2016 due to better control of fungal disease.
In 2017, leading Italian wine equipment manufacturer, Della Toffola, commercialised revolutionary technology developed by TIA for the processing of pinot noir grapes – but not before TIA had rolled out its research to interested Australian producers.
Outcomes of TIA’s various projects are targeted to Tasmania and more broadly Australia first, for its water challenges, soil variations, and future agricultural conditions rendered more volatile by climate change. Potential partnerships around the globe are also explored once the word has spread throughout Australia.
“Wine Australia funded the project that built on the original PhD work of Dr Angela Sparrow within TIA,” says Associate Professor Close. “Angela then worked with a range of large and smaller, innovative wineries to give them access to the knowledge at least a season ahead of any international competition.”
Optimising resources to maximise output will help ensure the viability of Australia’s agriculture sector, and deliver greater returns on investment for farmers.
And, perhaps most importantly, Tia’s work is about maximising the benefits of irrigation and maintaining the Australia’s soils to ensure productivity in the uncertain times ahead.
- Up to 66% in power savings to agricultural irrigators.
- 100% increases in pasture production per hectare.
- $1,000 a day in purchased feed costs saved on one farm, due to improved pasture productivity.
- $10 million annual savings to vineyards due to reductions in fungal disease outbreaks.
About the researchers
Associate Professor Close is Associate Director (Research) with the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture. Dugald is the Leader for the National PhD in Horticulture Program, national lead agency contact for the Cherry Industry and represents Tasmania on the National Horticulture Research network. Dugald's current research interests focus on temperate tree crop and wine grade nutrition, water and carbohydrate ecophysiology, including post-harvest science with the object of impact and outcomes via his contributions to Industry Development and Extension. Dugald is proud to coordinate the undergraduate units, Horticulture Science and Industry Work Integrated Learning.
Dr James Hills is a Research Fellow at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture's Dairy Centre, where he is the Research and Development team leader. He currently leads a team of researchers focusing on the areas of feedbase, animal nutrition, biophysical and farm-system modelling, precision agriculture, and new technologies relevant to temperate pasture-based dairy systems. James has a particular interest in variability in farming systems, and the use of technology for measuring and managing this variability to improve the efficiency and sustainability of production.
Dr Bill Cotching
Dr Bill Cotching works to change on-farm practices that influence soil health and productivity across the dairy, vegetables and broad acre cropping industries. Bill undertakes soil and water research working with farmer and industry groups to extend knowledge of best soil management practices on topics such as drainage, irrigation, soil carbon, nutrients and fertilisers, soil structure and erosion control, farm planning and nutrient mapping. Bill invented and promotes a technique and specialist implement to control soil erosion under intensive cropping.
Dr Kathy Evans is a Senior Research Fellow and Program Leader for Value Creation and Impact at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA). Kathy works across disciplines to help shape and enable outcomes-focused research that involves industry and other partners. She facilitates internal TIA teams working to lift TIA’s performance across multiple focus areas, and contributes to policies and strategies relating to the bioeconomy locally and globally. Kathy’s research and extension on plant disease epidemiology and management in wine grapes and other horticultural crops is recognised nationally and internationally, along with her contribution to the theory and practice of weed biological control. She contributes to teaching and learning in TIA and co-developed the inaugural breadth unit Working with Communities.
Interested in conducting your own research? Apply now to become a research student.
Interested in partnering with the University of Tasmania? Find out more about partnering.