Family focus on precision agriculture

Each member of the Piper family brings a different skill set to the farming operation, all of which contribute to improved efficiency and profitability

Image of grower John Piper

John Piper, from Felton, Queensland, says a greater understanding of farm topography and changes to the farm layout drove major gains in efficiencies and yields.

PHOTO: Sarah Clarry

In the past decade on the Piper farm in Felton, Queensland, the family has made several substantial leaps in precision-agriculture technology and management, often simultaneously.


Owners: Rob and Barb, John and Nicole Piper
Properties: ‘Fairview’ and ‘Itchelby’, plus another two properties and some share farming
Location: Felton, Queensland
Size: 800 hectares
Dryland: sorghum, sunflower, wheat, barley, chickpeas, mungbeans, forage oats;
75 Angus breeders
Annual rainfall: 700 millimetres
Soils: black cracking clay
Machinery: three-metre CTF system, John Deere 9500 header, JD 8400 and 8130 tractors and a SpraCoupe sprayer, AgLeader GPS

“I was lucky in the early days that my parents were open to change,” John Piper says.

“In 2007 we bought a tractor on three-metre wheel tracks that had GPS, so that was our springboard into controlled traffic. We moved into RTK GPS and a 3m CTF system in one step.”

Membership of their local grower group, the Clifton Allora Top Crop Group, has also been a driver for change.

It was in this group that John and his father Rob learnt about topography mapping of farms and different farm layouts.

“We previously worked our country contour by contour, and the water would run across the slope and find a low point before running down. The advisers suggested running them up and down the slope, like a corrugated iron roof,” John says.“When they first drew it on a map we thought they were mad. Now most of our tramlines are set up that way.”

John says once they got the layouts right, the changes were immediately noticeable.

“It was another loan and a big jump for us at the time, but it’s something we don’t regret. The switch made a huge difference to our efficiencies and yields.”

After that, John says, it was a process of fitting everything into the system.

“Next came the header on 3m, then the sprayer on 3m and we have just put GPS steering on the header and a yield monitor. That’s the beauty of having a brother in the industry.”

The brother to whom he refers is Andrew Piper, a product-support specialist with Ag Leader, a precision-agriculture technology and product supplier based in Adelaide.

Andrew studied agricultural engineering, and precision agriculture at a postgraduate level, so he is able to provide design advice on new machinery such as the planter frame that Rob and John are looking to build.

In addition to being a part owner of ‘Greenside’, one of the properties in the Piper family portfolio, Andrew provides support on-farm by managing and analysing the data that they collect during their operations.

“I like finding the cause for variation in yield maps or crop sensor data,” Andrew says.

“The hard part is working out how to fix the cause, but at least now we can measure the effect of any treatments that we make because we have yield monitoring.”

The family’s next step is investigating a move towards variable-rate planting and fertiliser application, again with Andrew’s assistance.

“We have quite a bit of variability in our soil types and depths,” John says. “We can go from a shallow soil at the top of the slope to very deep soils at the bottom and we’re seeing a lot of variation in yield.”

One new piece of equipment that has arrived on the farm this year is a GT grain dryer that Queensland Machinery Agency imported from the US.

“With the late harvest, a lot of people have had moisture issues,” John says. “For us a grain dryer is essential.”

Nicole operates the grain dryer, which uses diesel burner heating and can dry 22 tonnes of grain at a time.

The Pipers have hosted grain storage trials on site for grain storage specialist Phil Burrell over many years, examining aeration cooling and drying.

They have expanded their storage capacity during this time and now have 800 tonnes of aerated, sealed storage.

They have consistently improved their efficiencies and expanded their holdings; however, John believes they are now at a crossroads.

“I think we have reached our optimum size. If we employ someone, we’ll have to expand. At the moment it’s about all we can manage,” he says.

“We’ve been lucky that we’ve had a uni student doing three days a week work for us. Labour is a big issue.”

However, the economies of scale offered by a larger operation are always tempting.

“I think we can improve on what we’re doing. Timeliness is a big priority. It’s been reasonably profitable but we’re looking for that next step.”

For the past five years they have used an independent agronomist and they believe this has made a big difference to their profitability.

“Our agronomist, Mike Balzer, goes to all the GRDC updates and shares ideas,” John says.

“I feel that by having him we’re keeping up with all the latest research and developments.”

John cites herbicide resistance and agronomy packages as two priority research areas.

“We are starting to get some resistance issues appearing up here. I love zero-till but resistance is the biggest threat to that system at the moment.”

To manage the problem, the Pipers rotate chemical groups, use double knock, and do a little bit of strategic tillage.

“We do enough tillage to make us not want to go back to it,” John laughs.

He says continued work is needed on agronomy packages.

“It continues to amaze us that MR-Buster is still one of our main sorghum varieties. It’s around 25 years old, but it’s still getting results.

“Going back a few years I thought the answer was going to be in new crops, but now I think we’ve had better results trying to improve on what we already do.”

 More information:

John Piper,
0428 753 315,


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