NEW CSIRO research has revealed far greater productivity benefits from latest generation 'digital' agribusiness technologies than was previously estimated. Australia's science agency researchers believe Australian farmers are well positioned to reap a huge harvest by adapting these systems, energised by greater broadband access, to meet the needs of global food markets.
From monitoring soil moisture to measuring oyster heartbeats, a new CSIRO report has revealed Aussie farmers can help to tackle the global food shortage and significantly increase their productivity by taking advantage of new smart farming technologies enabled by next generation broadband networks.
The Smart Farming: leveraging the impact of broadband and the digital economy report compiles research from a number of Australian first agricultural projects which indicate that, by connecting farms to broadband-enabled sensor networks, farmers will be able to take more control of their operations by analysing the wealth of new information made available in easily accessible web tools.
"With food demand predicted to increase 50 percent in the next 20 years according to the National Food Plan Report 2013), the main challenge facing the agricultural sector is not so much growing 70 percent more food in 40 years, but making 70 percent more food available on the plate," said Colin Griffith, director of The Australian Centre for Broadband Innovation (ACBI).
He was referring to the United Nations 2012 report on Food Security and Australia's National Food Plan research of 2013.
"To tackle this challenge and help farmers make better decisions, we're trialling new broadband-enabled technologies such as cattle tags to track livestock as well as a range of sensor networks, which measure water salinity, soil moisture and even the heartbeat of oysters," Mr Griffith said.
"Initial studies indicate that these tools can help increase farming productivity in crop and pasture yields by targeting the use of water and fertilisers as well as in livestock production through better rotation of animals and pastures.
"For example, we have seen cotton growers using the soil moisture sensors almost doubling their yields per megalitre of water when they vary irrigation rates according to the localised needs of the soil and plants, rather than taking the one-size-fits-all approach for a whole field," he said.
National Farmers' Federation 2050 Committee chair, Hollie Baillieu said the digital economy presented a game changer for Australian agriculture.
"Not only will technology-driven productivity improvements help feed a growing population, but the innovations will also help improve farmers' bottom line and led to more profitable farm businesses," Ms Baillieu said.
"It doesn't matter whether we're talking about a cattle grazier from the Northern Territory or an oyster farmer in Tasmania, the benefits of emerging technologies provide opportunities for the entire farming sector."
The Smart Farming: leveraging the impact of broadband and the digital economy report is designed to help government agencies, IT professionals, farmers and related businesses to better understand the potential of smart farming technologies in Australia's agricultural and upstream service and processing industries.
It describes opportunities and benefits for Australia's rural sector from the broadband network and the digital economy. Some of these emerging opportunities have been explored through demonstration smart farm initiatives, outlined in the report.
These projects have also pinpointed the key drivers and barriers for adoption of this new technology in the agricultural and related industries.
The Smart Farming: leveraging the impact of broadband and the digital economy report will be officially launched to industry and government stakeholders during the Digital Rural Futures Conference on Wednesday (June 26)
CSIRO and the University of New England have set up a demonstration Smart Farm in Armidale, NSW to investigate and demonstrate the impact of broadband and related digital services for Australia's rural sector.
The initiative is lead by the ACBI, a collaborative research initiative established by CSIRO, and UNE's Precision Agriculture Research Group.
The Kirby Smart Farm is a 2800 hectare working commercial farm located 10km north-west of UNE's campus at Armidale. The farm focuses on merino wool and beef cattle but various grains for livestock feed are also produced.
At Kirby it is a mixture of native grasses, introduced clovers and developed rye-grass and fescue-based mixtures. Productivity on a farm of this kind is highly dependent on pasture management because it provides the main food source for the livestock.
The farm was also one of the first mainland farms connected to the NBN terrestrial wireless broadband service -- initially at 12 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream with a planned future upgrade to 25 Mbps downstream and 5 Mbps upstream.
Another research case study is taking place at the Queensland Digital Homestead.
Through CSIRO's Sustainable Agriculture Flagship a ‘Digital Homestead' in Townsville, Queensland, is being developed to integrate multiple disparate sources of information from on-farm sensing of soil, vegetation, livestock and the environment as well as from external sources such as climate forecasts and market information into a simple and usable cloud-based decision support systems for farmers and agriculture advisers.
The project collaborators include QLD DAFF, JCU & QUT, co-funded by the Queensland Government Smart Futures fund.
The project focus is on building a ‘dashboard' that integrates and presents the information in such a way, so that better decisions can be made. The additional opportunity is to build new and adapted businesses in the service sector, and across the value chain, that can be delivered virtually, taking advantage of the two-way real-time connectivity of the system.
Sense-T has been established in Tasmania to test new generation digital sensor networks on farms.
Sense-T is building the world's first economy-wide intelligent sensor network. It is creating a digital view of the entire island by combining different data sources, including real-time sensor data.
Information will be available through easy-to-use apps to help businesses, governments and communities better manage their resources - to help them do more with less, according to the CSIRO.
Sense-T is a partnership program between the University of Tasmania, the Tasmanian Government, CSIRO (through the Australian Centre for Broadband Innovation) and IBM.
It is also funded by the Australian Government through the Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement. Sense-T establishes Tasmania as a centre for technology and research excellence, where shared data drives new approaches to social, environmental and economic sustainability that can be scaled cost-effectively elsewhere.