By Richard Henderson
It still takes a bit of getting used to … the internet, cyberspace and all the new horizons that seem to be unfolding from its growing presence in our lives.
The holodeck on the Starship Enterprise, a place where people communicate via a 3D image of themselves, is pure fantasy; as a few years ago would have been the notion of a "virtual agronomist" appearing through your computer.
Photo: A cyberspace field trip: Larissa Fawcett and BCG"s Virtual Agronomy website.
But the latest offering to members of the Birchip Cropping Group (BCG) is effectively just that - a virtual agronomist.
At the group"s September field day, GRDC southern panel chairman Ian MacKinnon launched its new software/internet program, Virtual Agronomy, accessed through its website www.bcg.org.au/virtual_agronomy.php.
Virtual Agronomy allows registered BCG members to follow the progress of research trials through images, video, audio and text, which is updated regularly as needed.
Constructed by the Centre for Electronic Commerce and Communications at the University of Ballarat, the site currently features a farming systems trial, yellow leaf spot control on Yitpi wheat, day and night spraying of resistant ryegrass, the use of group-D chemicals with zero-till machinery, a cereal varieties trial, a comparison of oilseeds, and a trial on stripe rust in wheat.
BCG extension officer Larissa Fawcett says that while there is a lot of information on the website, and more to follow, it has been designed with dial-up speeds in mind to keep the system practical.
"At the moment the site is only available to our members, but it"s our vision that other grower or farming systems groups will eventually use the software for their own trial data, therefore making it more universal and available to all Australian growers," Ms Fawcett says.
She also says that general use of the BCG website has risen significantly since Virtual Agronomy went online.
The site is functional and interactive. It will feature a virtual tour of the BCG main field site each year, and allows BCG members to contribute their own data and experiences to various trials in a chat room. It also features an online discussion forum with guest experts and scientists, in which growers can normally get an answer to any relevant question within 48 hours.
Growers are also able to find historical BCG trial data using a keyword search, and refine the search by crop type, region and year.
In addition to examining current trials, they can also assess progress through the season and the life of the trial, together with relevant figures such as rainfall, sowing dates and soil test results.
Ms Fawcett and other BCG staff say they have to work diligently to keep the website up to date by taking photographs and video footage of trials, from the whole site to individual sample plants - complete interpretations and analyses.
"Even our older members - farmers who wouldn"t usually use the internet - have found they love Virtual Agronomy," she says.
"Agronomists are also finding it handy - it"s a continuous stream of cropping information throughout the growing season."
Virtual Agronomy was established with funding from the GRDC and the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.
For more information: Larissa Fawcett, BCG, 03 5492 2787
GRDC Research Code: BWD00002, program 6
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