5 ways agriculture technology is changing farming
Naturally sensitive to erratic weather and market conditions, the Australian farming industry is used to shouldering challenging years. That's why more and more farmers are looking to the agricultural technology sector for solutions that could help to optimise agricultural operations while responding to changing climatic conditions and consumer needs.
An initiative led by the CSIRO in collaboration with James Cook University and Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) is Future Feed, a plant-based food supplement with the potential to reduce a cow's methane production by up to 86%, drastically reducing the negative impact the beef industry has on the environment.
Methane emissions generated by livestock make up as much as 14.5% of greenhouse gasses resulting from human activities every year and are a significant contributor to overall global warming.
As we push for a greener world, every industry is finding ways to reduce its footprint and agriculture is part of this shift. The future of farming and reducing methane emissions go hand in hand and a slightly surprising development is proving to be hugely successful.
A key ingredient found in a red seaweed native to Australian waters is able to stop the methane production process in the cow's gut when it's in its final stages. “There are no other compounds of any type, whether they're seaweed or (synthetic) chemicals that can take methane down that far without hurting the animal,” says Dr Rob Kinley of the CSIRO and Chief Scientist at Future Feed, adding that methane is purely a by-product of evolution and has no purpose to the animal.
If commercialised, its global impact could be wide-reaching. According to Future Feed, if only 10% of livestock producers added 1% of the red seaweed supplement to their livestock's daily feed the emissions-reducing effect would be equivalent to removing 100 million cars from the road.
Already a familiar concept in the world of business and cryptocurrency, blockchain technology may now also be coming for the farming industry. Through an open-source, secure database, blockchain could let farmers and other key stakeholders along the supply chain safely store and share crucial information to support precision agriculture.
This would mean more opportunities for collaboration within the industry but would also allow farmers to follow the journey of their stock in real-time – from birth, to the feedlot, the abattoir and then the exporter.
This gives farmers greater control of processes, but it can also help identify inefficiencies and problems and offer faster solutions, particularly in the realms of biosecurity and safety of livestock. What's more, it can increase transparency for today's consumer, sharing clear insights into the quality of their produce.
For fourth-generation grazier, Ainsley McArthur, who runs her 12,000-hectare property with husband Rob, the benefits of a tech-based alternative to traditional fencing are too hard to pass up.
In collaboration with IP developed by the CSIRO, Melbourne-based agriculture technology startup Agersens has created digital paddock technology that allows farmers to graze their cows without the need for post and barbed wire fencing.
Using an intelligent, lightweight, solar-powered cow collar, the system is based on animal-learning research. If an animal is about to cross the boundaries of its grazing area, the collar alerts them with two successive sounds and, should it ignore those, a mild electric pulse.
Westpac customers, the McArthurs – who own Queensland cattle property Mystery Park – fitted the eShepherd neckbands to around 450 out of their 5000-strong cattle herd during a three-month trial and they've been thrilled with the results. The system has helped increase pasture utilisation by 40% and land value by 20% due to enhanced carrying capacity, meaning the couple can support more cattle per paddock. It even reduced their stock loss by 3%.
“It was really amazing to watch them learn so quickly,” says Ainsley. “As we've intensified our rotational grazing, and kept the cattle out of riparian sensitive areas, we've used single electric wires – but on 12,000 hectares there's only so many single electric wires you can put up. The eShepherd has been the tool that's going to make that easier, because you can just draw the fences anywhere you like.”
Modern weed detection is already advanced. Crop monitoring systems use RGB cameras and different forms of imaging to detect weeds and distinguish them from crops based on their colour.
But herbicides are still big business in Australia. According to Strategic Elements, the cost of weed control here exceeds $3 billion a year. That's why the brand has decided to step up the weed-elimination game using digital tools such as advanced sensors and smart algorithms to spot weeds that can fly under the radar, while tackling herbicide resistance.
Stealth Technologies, a Strategic Elements subsidiary, demonstrated its advanced technology earlier this year , detecting, locating and 3D-mapping weeds missed by the human eye and current computer vision solutions. This ultra-targeted approach could help farmers significantly reduce the costs of herbicide application and encourage the use of other techniques to manage weed growth.
Risk assessments are an important part of being in business. In farming, this often includes climate mapping to achieve the best chance of crop growth and maximised crop yields. However, these types of technologies can be expensive, meaning this option is only available to large-scale farms with significant financial backing.
This is where Agrolly comes in. The 2020 winner of the IBM Call for Code Global Challenge built an app that lets small-scale farmers conduct a full climate risk assessment on their land. Using IBM® Cloud Object Storage, IBM Watson® Studio, IBM Watson Assistant, and The Weather Company technologies, the platform features crop-risk algorithms, a long-term rainfall forecast – which is tested periodically to ensure accuracy – and individually tailored crop water requirements.
Though still in the testing phase , there are plans for this enhanced agricultural production tech to be rolled out to more countries so that farmers all over the world can see the benefits.
To sum up
More farmers than ever are embracing the cutting-edge practices that agricultural technologies offer as they seek improved agricultural productivity. With innovations offering sustainable and affordable solutions that will help farmers everywhere adapt as they enter a new, more agile, and progressive era, it's clear that the forecast is good for Australian farmers.
This information does not take into account your personal circumstances and is general. It is an overview only and should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter or relied upon. Consider obtaining personalised advice from a professional financial adviser and your accountant before making any financial decisions in relation to the matters discussed in this article, including when considering tax and finance options for your business. Westpac does not endorse any of the external providers referred to in this article.