How Agricultural technology is helping Aussie farmers fight drought
Farming on the world's driest inhabited continent is no easy feat.
Droughts can feel almost endless, and what little rain does fall is precious beyond measure. It's this adversity that's given rise to a determined spirit of innovation. Now, more than ever, Aussie farmers are embracing agricultural technology that helps manage water, their - and the world's - most precious resource
As another El Nino event is declared in Australia, here are five ways some Aussie farmers are using technology to help overcome the challenges of drought.
The idea of farmers working remotely may seem a little far-fetched, but with smart irrigation technology it could soon become commonplace. The cutting-edge agricultural technology works through satellites and sensors placed within farmers' fields, enabling irrigators to manage an automated watering system remotely.
“It's all cloud-based and can be accessed via phones, which also suits larger operations that may have a number of irrigation managers,” says Dr John Hornbuckle, an associate professor from Deakin University. The university has worked closely with the Federal Government and the private sector to develop the technology, which could dramatically change the way farmers work for the better.
There are two key benefits of smart irrigation. The first is water savings, with the system alerting farmers to optimal irrigation times and shutting off water supply when enough has been used. The second is a reduction in labour costs, as irrigators no longer need to be as physically involved in the irrigation process.
The technology, which is still being trialled as part of the Smarter Irrigation for Profit project, has shown promising signs across a wide range of sites, including dairy farms and rice paddies, and is just one of many similar smart approaches being developed. Find out more on the Smarter Irrigation website.
Sharing data to help improve water efficiency with the help of sensors, Goanna Ag is able to give farmers a seriously close connection with their farm – and Westpac is one of the brand's investors.
“It's such an exciting space,” says Stephen Hannan, Westpac's Director of Climate and Rural Engagement. “Australian Agtech is still in its infancy, but it's building in maturity quickly. These are the investments we need to start making … because we see this as the future.”
Goanna Ag's capabilities mean there's less manual interaction with irrigation systems and better crop outcomes because farmers are able to optimise their water scheduling processes.
“We can tell farmers where their soil moisture level is, where their irrigation refill level is, and how the weather is going to change. It gives them the information to make that decision whether to irrigate or hold off,” says Tom Dowling, former agronomist and co-founder of Goanna Ag. Plus, thanks to the significant data the tech captures, farmers are able to forecast their water resources for the future. Find out more at Goanna Ag.
Across Australia, there are over 430,000 rural water tanks and more than 1,000,000 dams, reservoirs and other water bodies. But despite the essential role these water storage facilities play in keeping farms irrigated, very few are monitored in real time.
Farmbot is an Australian agricultural technology company seeking to change that. Drawing on more than a decade's worth of genuine farming experience, the team at Farmbot has developed a range of remote monitoring technology products that are built to withstand even the toughest Aussie outback conditions. These products give farmers a clear view of their water storage infrastructure and lets them activate pumps and other machinery remotely in real time. It's practical agricultural technology that helps farmers manage their water supply more sustainably, generating better environmental outcomes and greater financial savings.
While connectivity has previously been an issue for projects such as Farmbot, the service uses a robust satellite system provided by Inmarsat, a world leader in satellite communications – letting farmers remotely manage their water supply with ease. The technology is available now and can be used no matter how remote your farm is.
In Riverland – Australia's largest wine-growing region – cross-sector collaboration has resulted in VitiVisor, a pioneering agricultural-technology platform that helps grape growers better manage their water use. Initiated in 2018, the program brings together both growers and researchers.
VitiVisor works by collecting and analysing data from vineyard cameras and sensors, measuring factors such as canopy growth, fruit production, sap flow and soil moisture. Displaying this information as a dashboard, the platform lets growers make data-driven decisions that help streamline vineyard management.
The platform combines its vineyard insights with market and farm cost information, offering a holistic approach to management that saves growers water and money. Its open-source software – while intended for optimising water consumption – means the tech can be customised and updated to suit the needs of different farmers.
In a project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the CSIRO has developed the Chameleon soil water sensor, an ingenious piece of agricultural technology that's been designed for the world's most vulnerable farmers.
Using a simple indicative light system, the sensor is able to overcome language barriers, and has to date helped hundreds of farmers across the globe manage the soil moisture of their farms. A blue light means that the soil is wet and shouldn't be watered for a while; a red light means that the soil is dry and should be watered immediately; and a green light means that the soil is perfectly moist and only requires monitoring.
The sensor can be purchased at the Virtual Irrigation Academy and the results are felt beyond our own backyard. The project's success highlights the important role Australia can play in counteracting water scarcity – a problem with global ramifications.
It sounds like something straight from science-fiction, but self-watering soil has become a potentially revolutionary reality. Developed by engineers at the University of Texas, the soil consists of super-moisture-absorbent gels that suck water from the air and distribute it to plants.
The inspiration for this development came from the need to make crop farming possible without relying on the water supply chain, especially as resources become scarcer. Though it’s still being developed, the soil could open up new frontiers, bringing agriculture to previously unfarmable places as there’s no need for expensive irrigation systems. And because it reduces the reliance of crops on traditional water sources, the soil has the potential to revolutionise farming in drought-ridden regions like Australia. It’s definitely one development to keep an eye on.
To sum up
Droughts are becoming more severe and less predictable. Increasingly, however, Australian farmers have some new tricks up their sleeves thanks to innovative agricultural technology – empowering them to sustainably manage and conserve water.
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