Grains Research and Development

Date: 15.08.2006

PA Manual 2006

GRDC Precision Agriculture Manual, August 2006

Precision Agriculture, or PA, is a topic of increasing interest and discussion within the Australian grains industry. New varieties and improved methods of agronomic management have enabled growers to progressively overcome limitations to crop growth. In most regions, yield, profit and productivity have steadily increased when averaged across seasonal conditions. This has drawn attention to the inherent variability in yield and margin within paddocks and across the farm. Growers are now looking for ways to manage this spatial variability by better matching inputs to the productive potential of particular paddocks or sites within a single paddock. This would enable them to increase profit, and at the same time improve environmental management. 

PA involves collecting information about specific sites and then using this information to make and apply management decisions. This could be as simple as using Global Positioning System guidance on the spray rig to reduce overlap, or as complex as using a computer card and map of paddock management zones or soil pH to vary fertiliser or lime application on-the-go with a variable rate applicator.

The basic tools needed for PA have been available for more than a decade, but uptake of this new technology within the grains industry has been slow, especially for the more complex techniques that involve mapping crop or soil characteristics. Several reasons for this slow adoption have been reported by growers in surveys by the GRDC and others. One reason is that investment in equipment for the full suite of PA methods is expensive and growers are uncertain whether a return will follow, nor is it clear if PA will be effective in lifting margins in all farms or cropping regions. Also, to make full use of PA, skills are required in data collection and integration, and in interpreting PA data to enable better management decisions to be made. As yet, there are few people with this combination of skills to support grain growers in using PA in practice. 

In 2003, in response to these gaps in knowledge and skills, the GRDC established a 5 year national research program in PA involving 10 R&D teams working with growers across all cropping regions. One aim of this initiative is to test different ways of using PA to determine which are the most useful for growers in particular situations, and at the same time to uncover the main underlying causes of spatial variability. The program is also developing a range of tools that growers can use to help decide whether PA is likely to be a good financial investment for them. Attention is being given to improving education and training in PA to help provide the skilled people that the industry needs if it is to gain maximum benefit from this technology. 

This PA Manual is the first major product from our PA research initiative. It aims to bring together much of the technical information that agronomists, farm consultants, extension staff and others in the industry need in order to understand how PA methods work and how they can be put into practice on-farm. It is not aimed directly at the average grain grower, although some growers already familiar with PA will find useful information here. Our intention is that organisations and groups will use this technical manual to help underpin their own training programs and as a reference work on PA. The GRDC is working with other groups to develop more education and training products that will meet the need of growers for less-technical information on how to make PA work in practice, and that could be incorporated into tertiary courses. 

This Manual has been prepared by a large number of researchers working within the GRDC national PA initiative, and I would like to thank them for their efforts in bringing together for the first time in Australia such detailed technical information. We know that the coverage of different PA topics varies within the Manual, and that new information is becoming available from the current research. However, it was our decision that this information is needed urgently in the public domain, and that we should make the Manual available as soon as possible. The GRDC intends to update and re-issue this Manual at the completion of our national PA program in 2007. We would therefore welcome your comments on how this version could be improved, so please use the feedback form provided and email or print and post back to us. 

In the meantime, the GRDC encourages you to use the information provided here, including for your own or your organisation’s education and training programs. Please feel free to copy and modify sections from the Manual to suit your own purposes. Our only request is that you acknowledge the authors and the GRDC.

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