A global perspective on precision agriculture

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South Australian-based grains industry communicator Emma Leonard recently undertook a GRDC-sponsored industry development award to study international trends in precision agriculture.

Photo of Emma Leonard

Emma Leonard, recently returned from a precision agriculture fact-finding study.

PHOTO: Clarisa Collis

With about 80 per cent of grain growers in developed countries already using some form of satellite guidance on machinery, many may feel that spatial technology in farming has come of age. 

The reality is that guidance and autosteer are technologies still at the pioneering stage in terms of a new approach to farming.

Many of the new technical developments are occurring overseas and outside the grain industry. To learn ‘who is working on what’ I attended three international precision agriculture conferences in June and July.

Two events were targeted at scientists – the 5th Asian Conference on Precision Agriculture (ACPA) and 9th European Conference on Precision Agriculture (ECPA) – while the third, InfoAg in the US, was designed for growers and agronomists.

I attended these events with the support of a GRDC Industry Development Award. My objective was to gain a global perspective on the development and application of spatial technologies and information and communication technologies (ICT).

Relevance of precision

The development of spatially based, precision management systems for agriculture is relevant to large and small-scale growers in the developed and developing worlds.

In his keynote address at the ACPA, held in South Korea, Dr Raj Khosla from Colorado State University showed that patterns of variation on large and small-scale farms are very similar. Precision farming can be relevant irrespective of scale, although the management system used may differ in its level of sophistication.

For example, precision management in a broadacre agriculture system in the US might include nitrogen prescriptions based on soil and crop data collected using sensors and satellite, with applications controlled via computers. In a developing country precision could be a dose of fertiliser measured using a bottle cap and placed at the base of each maize plant, rather than being broadcast haphazardly by hand.

This example illustrates that precision agriculture does not necessarily require expensive and complex technology but is about improving efficiency and productivity.

A global perspective

Photo of Dr Masakazu Kodaira

Dr Masakazu Kodaira, from the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, with results from the on-the-go soil sampler that uses near-infrared reflectance to measure 19 soil parameters including key macro and micronutrients. The system is close to commercialisation in Japan.

PHOTO: Emma Leonard

The speed at which precision management systems are adopted will be driven by their ability to deliver on-farm benefits. However, development and adoption are also influenced by regional priorities, and presentations at the three conferences showed these to differ across the regions.

China – Labour-saving techniques and tools are a key focus for agricultural development. Improving yield per unit of inputs, supported by cheap sensors and input controllers suited to smaller-scale producers, is also important.

Dr Chunjiang Zhao, director of the National Engineering Research Center for Information Technology in Agriculture, reported that the annual investment in China in precision agriculture research is about US$66 million (A$70 million).

South Korea – High levels of land productivity have already been achieved in South Korea. The 2006 figures presented at the ACPA reported production of US$17,327 per hectare (A$18,451/ha), compared with US$984/ha (A$1048/ha) for the US. This is partly because production is focused on intensive, small-scale production of high-value vegetables and fruit.

Dr Sun-Ok Chung, professor at Chungnam National University, proposed that precision technologies offered South Korea the opportunity to combine food with medicine and focus on what he termed “human-specific crop production”.

Such food products could be tailored to meet physical and mental health requirements and the relevant crops could be produced in plant factories. These are multistorey ‘farms’ in which all water, light and nutrient inputs are controlled by sensors. Such a fully automated, robotic plant factory producing ginseng is already in operation.

Japan – While food security has a high priority in Japan, it is food safety that is paramount. Technology to provide traceability through the food chain as well as non-destructive sensors to measure product quality before going to market were areas of interest presented by Dr Sakae Shibusawa, professor of agriculture and technology at Tokyo University.

It is also interesting to note that at Hokkaido University the Laboratory of Vehicle Robotics is already running a fully robotic farming operation.

Europe – High-value crops and reducing environmental impact are priority areas for precision agriculture research in Europe. For example, while just 4.4 per cent of the cropped area in the European Union is under orchards, this sector accounts for 14 per cent of all pesticides used.

At the field tour, Dr Alexandre Escolà and colleagues from the University of Lleida, Spain, demonstrated the use of a light-emitting laser (lidar) to measure canopy density in grape vines. This information was then used to moderate pesticide rates. 

This research team has also produced a simple web-based system (www.dosafrut.es) to determine the pesticide requirement of different-sized fruit trees. Its use has already allowed some orchard managers to halve their pesticide use.

Another important focus in Europe is improved integration between equipment. Dr Robin Gebbers, Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering Potsdam-Bornim, Germany, reported on two initiatives aimed at improving equipment compatibility and integration of multiple platforms.

US – Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were of interest in Asia and Europe, but in the US they are the platform of the moment.

At InfoAg, at least six providers of fixed-wing and rotary UAVs or UAV-based services were exhibited.

The use of precision technology is seen to be relevant across all industry sectors in the US, however, there seems to be some tailoring to industry sectors. For example, initial robotic investments are being focused on horticulture and industries where smaller vehicles are appropriate.

New commercial broadacre platforms are also being developed. For example, FieldScripts™ is a variable-rate seeding package for corn. To be fully launched in 2014, this system uses up to 20 layers of data to provide a grower with variable-rate seeding maps for different Monsanto corn cultivars.

Cargill is reported to be working on a similar product. This is an example of how precision technologies are starting to become central to agricultural management.

While much of what I saw is still in development, the challenge is to match the technical solution to our real problems.

More information:

Emma Leonard,
AgriKnowHow,
08 8834 1233,
emma.leonard@bigpond.com

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GRDC Project Code IDA10447

Region South, Overseas