2012 Nuffield Scholar Ryan Smart
PHOTO: Emma Leonard
Based on a mixed farm in south-eastern South Australia, grower Ryan Smart comes from a family that has always been ready to innovate. His parents bought their first property in the 1970s, building it up through the lucerne seed market before diversifying into a five-property family operation that today encompasses sheep, cattle, lucerne seed production, and crops for human and animal consumption.
It is no surprise therefore that Ryan, a 2012 Nuffield Scholar responsible for the family property at Keith, is keen to introduce new technologies he saw in Europe and North America into Australian farming systems.
Throughout his travels, when he met growers and researchers, Ryan saw huge potential in the newest generation of fuel emission technologies that feed exhaust from farming machinery back into the soil as part of tillage. He was also impressed by services that provide in-depth information on soil and plant conditions based on satellite images.
“We’re huge energy consumers because of the irrigation we use on some of our farm, and we put out a lot of fertiliser. There’s always lots of money getting spent on diesel and energy to burn. Something always on my mind was that surely there’s a more efficient and better way out there,” says Ryan, explaining his motivation for applying for a Nuffield Scholarship.
His visits to broadacre farms in Canada, as well as smaller operations in Europe, prompted him to consider how such technologies could be applied to the 2000 hectares of his farm dedicated to canola, wheat, barley, milling oats, hay and faba beans.
Fume to fertiliser
While technologies to recirculate exhaust fumes back into the soil have been around for decades, Ryan says that in recent years they have been refined using technology developed for the drag-racing industry. Such technology is now used in Canada for both irrigated and broadacre cropping, and the new technology allows growers to track the process in real time.
“The technology was developed to measure the different levels of carbon dioxide, oxygen and temperatures arising from drag-racing. In a farming context, you can have all the information sent to your laptop or iPad in the tractor cab telling you exactly what’s happening: are you putting 100 per cent of your exhaust emissions into the soil or is there a little bit escaping?” Ryan says.
While the idea of pumping exhaust into food-producing soil may sound like it would contaminate crops, Ryan says research from a collaborative project between Montana State University and Canadian manufacturer N/C Quest (which has adapted the technology for use in farming) indicates that the small amounts of metals and anions that make it into the soil act, in fact, as nutrients for plants and microbes.
Due to replace his seeder in the next 12 months, Ryan plans to order an attachment that would perform this emissions recirculating function, the fumes partially replacing the use of monoammonium phosphate and diammonium phosphate. Even with a 10 per cent reduction in fertiliser inputs, he estimates that the $50,000 to $60,000 for the attachment would be recouped within a few years.
Just how much fertiliser he will be able to replace will be part of a longer-term testing process. “And as well as saving money, you’re also not putting any carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, becoming a zero emitter.”
In a pixel
The other technology that Ryan says is dramatically influencing farming in the countries he visited is a system called PiMapping® (short for pixel intelligence mapping), which uses satellite and GPS technology to scan properties and then deliver detailed information on crop condition electronically to grower clients.
“You bring it up on the computer screen and have a look at the image and there will be a few paragraphs on that crop’s general health, and then the information narrows right down to the pixel. Does it need some attention because it doesn’t look healthy in this part? It might be a fungicide problem. It might be an insect problem,” Ryan says.
Originally developed by eLEAF, the technology has been applied to broadacre cropping in Canada, Poland, the Netherlands and Ukraine through the online Fieldlook portal. It offers a new way to respond to changes and conditions across an entire property.
“For a long time you have been able to scan your fields with drones or by flying a plane over your paddock. You can also drive a tractor or a sprayer or a ute over your paddocks and get this information. But you can’t do that every week, and it gets expensive,” Ryan says.
For its Canadian subscribers, the satellite-based eLEAF offers readings on a range of factors including growth, moisture, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and yield. Users select which metrics they would like to be kept informed about. The price for information packages starts at CAD$8 (A$8.50) an acre.
“In Canada, I observed people keeping ahead of the game using this technology before the plant showed physical signs of distress. They were able to prescribe fertiliser applications differently, using more in some paddocks and less in other paddocks,” Ryan says.
He gives a particular example in which a Canadian potato farmer, with whom he stayed, received information via the system that the potatoes growing under one of his centre pivots were in trouble.
“At first when we looked at it, there wasn’t anything different to anything else we’d looked at that day. But we started digging up spuds, doing a count, and got half the number of spuds compared with the other paddock,” Ryan says.
For the moment, this technology is unavailable in Australia because of the capital investment needed to get a mother system up and running. But Ryan sees it as a top priority for his Keith property when it becomes available.
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