Behind the broadacre scenes of the Aus challenge space
We speak to seasoned Aussie grains farmers about what tech they need and why
“Instead of being like a helicopter parent, micromanaging my plants, I want to leave them to their own devices and know they’ll stay out of trouble.”
– Tim Rethus, Australian grains farmer
When we asked farmers in the Wimmera Mallee region of Victoria for their innovation wish-list, they had a lot to say. In general terms, they want technology that saves time, mitigates farmers’ climate risk, and “really works”. But ask long-time peers and broadacre grains farmers Tim Rethus and Cameron Taylor for specifics, and you might want to have a pen and a quick hand to take some notes – especially if you’re a scale-up eyeing a spot in this year’s Graft Aus-India AgTech Challenge.
As early-adopters of productivity-boosting breakthroughs such as satellite crop-surveillance and minimum tillage, these farmers have an eye for solid, paddock-ready solutions. Their enthusiasm for innovation and their knowledge of gaps that need filling in the face of climate change is the stuff of inspiration for problem-solvers across the Indo-Pacific. Listen in, as Tim (left image) and Cameron (right image) lay out the challenge with us here.
First of all, tell us about your farm.
TIM: We’re at Horsham over three main areas spread over 70kms. We farm wheat, canola, barley, lentils, safflower, faba beans, vetch hay, and oaten hay for export. We use digital tools and progressive approaches like zero tillage and controlled traffic.
CAMERON: Our farm base is at Lubeck but we have land near Rupanyup and Wal Wal in the Eastern Wimmera. We farm wheat, canola, barley, lentils, beans, vetch hay, and oaten hay for domestic and export. We use minimum tillage and controlled tramlines for all operations except hay production.
What challenges do you need to overcome in order for your farms to be more climate-resilient?
TIM: With a changing climate, particularly drought, we can’t afford to do anything by gut feel or guesswork anymore. We have to really maximise to the Nth degree what we are getting out of each season. That’s why over the years the industry has seen huge take up of innovations like minimum tillage, which reduces soil erosion and preserves moisture.
But to weather the storms of less predictable conditions and unreliable rain, we are increasingly relying on knowing our farms inside out. We need help taking that to the next level through the smart use of financial modelling and record keeping tools that optimise our agribusiness, diversification into alternative incomes streams, block chain enabled marketing platforms, data driven risk management, and artificial intelligence that uses a range of data accumulated through existing and new technologies to automate crop-management and better target how we manage nutrition, disease, pests and weeds.
CAMERON: No amount of machinery or technology is going to bring more rain so we need to maximise our soil’s ability to hold moisture in a dry climate and provide the plant with the best opportunity to utilise all of that moisture. Doing so with minimal surface disturbance is key.
As climate change demands flexibility in our rotations, we need a way of tracking what we are doing where and in what soil types. If we can know what sections of the field are performing well, and really put a number on it, over time we can develop a picture of best practice for different plants and conditions.
We also need models that help farmers accurately do the sums about what crop will have the greatest chance of success and potentially be more profitable under specific growing conditions and make decisions such as whether to cut for hay or leave for grain when the season’s weather changes. Managing large farms in limited time-frames can be challenging, so logistics management in variable climate and weather is vital to being profitable. Having the ability to react to the weather in a timely fashion can make the difference between making or losing money.
What do you think India’s tech sector can offer Australian grains farmers?
TIM: India has a lot of smart, university-educated young talent and they have this attitude where they are willing to have a go. If they see an opportunity, the run with it. I’m excited to see what they could offer in regards to communications and connectivity technologies.
CAMERON: The innovation nous of India has a lot to offer our industry, and I’m looking forward to putting the challenge to them and seeing what they’ll come up with. They’ll probably have some novel ideas we haven’t even discussed yet.
Let’s dig into the details. What technologies would be potentially transformative?
Artificial Intelligence. We need deep diagnosis of crops by layering best-available technologies such as satellite imagery of crops, grain quality tools such as protein-checkers and microscopic high-resolution imagery to produce detailed hectare-by-hectare, metre by metre, analysis - not just typical 100ha field averages. This won’t happen without cheaper and more reliable data storage and connectivity between different data points.
Below-ground breakthroughs. We need systems thinking around harnessing the power of the soil, which could increase productivity and quality while also absorbing carbon on a non-tree basis.
If the mechanisms of optimal soil-health for resilient plants can be identified, this would be a game-changer because less stressed plants could withstand the impact of extremes such as frosts and dry climate conditions. Plants in biologically active soils adjust their nutrition-intake better, which would mean farmers can fully leverage their rotations – and reduce the need for constant oversight. Instead of being like a helicopter parent, micromanaging my plants, I want to leave them to their own devices and know they’ll stay out of trouble.
Landscape change. Innovation for the same industry is incremental but landscape change is transformation – that could come in the form of alternative income streams through mosaic-type paddocks. This could include carbon farming through tree-lots that can’t be cleared for instance. We need someone to look at cost methodologies and tools to efficiently measure and report on the cost-benefits of such an approach.
Less, more targeted spraying. We need better systems and cost-effective technologies for minimising or better-targeting application of herbicides and fertilisers. Unpredictable weather events, rising input costs and social perception pressure makes the future of spraying pesticides less certain, so our management of issues like summer weeds needs to be more sophisticated.
Profit-modelling. We need readily available information on best end-usage of crops such as livestock grazing in paddocks vs taking the paddock through to grain production.
Spatial mapping. Integrated data that maps performance of crops in different soil types would help us adapt to and get more productivity out of varied conditions. This would help farmers spatially manage their soils better to keep costs down and productivity high.
Product development. There is potential to diversify high-value crop with, say, pulses which are widely consumed in India. Victoria grows pulses as well as anywhere in the world and with increased demand for premium product from the growing middle classes in Asia there are opportunities to create secondary industries and provide an upgraded, tailored product to an overseas market.
What’s your key take-home message to challenge-applicants?
TIM: Anything my brain can do repeatedly, I want a computer to do it for me so that I can focus on management, using my creativity and ingenuity to improve my business, which is so critical with climate variability meaning less consistency in the performance of crops. We have to get granular to gain insights into what is working when and where.
CAMERON: There’s a lot of marketing and spin around new tech products but when farmers come to use it, it’s difficult to understand or there’s a lot of trouble shooting. It’s got to really work and lead to less input for more output. If it maintains or improves production, for less input, it’s worth investing in.
These farmers have been putting their minds to the challenge, now it’s your turn to brainstorm. How can you help Australian grains farmers adapt and refine their systems and tools so that this vital industry can continue to make productivity gains in the face of climate change?