GRDC Research Updates unveil tomorrow's tools and technologies – Adelaide

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GRDC Research Updates are a hothouse of new projects, debate, knowledge-sharing, ready-to-go innovations and a sneak peak at what is on the horizon for our cropping industry. For this issue of Ground Cover we crossed the country to cover Updates in Adelaide, Wagga Wagga, Goondiwindi, Auburn, Perth and Yuna.

Portrait of Jana Phan with Matthew Aubert

GRDC PhD scholar Jana Phan, pictured with fellow University of Adelaide student Matthew Aubert, presented her research into characterising novel forms of beta-glucanase in malting barley at the Adelaide Update.

The recent Adelaide GRDC Update served up a smorgasbord of insights for the 370 growers and advisers who attended. Here is an insight into some of the new and emerging tools and technologies that are informing decisions and driving change in the cropping industry

Adelaide – how tomorrow looks 

Now: networked farm data collection

Soil-moisture probes and weather stations are not new to the cropping landscape, but as technology improves these tools are becoming more sophisticated.

Portrait of Leighton Wilksch

Yorke Peninsula agricultural technologist Leighton Wilksch explains how soil probes can be networked to weather stations at a 2015 Jamestown, SA, field day.

PHOTO: Rebecca Jennings

Yorke Peninsula, South Australia, agricultural technologist Leighton Wilksch, who runs agricultural sensor technology company Agbyte, says the way data is logged, transmitted and viewed by these technologies is changing.

For example, mobile phone and server-based data now allows for near-real-time information at growers’ fingertips. The capability of technology is also changing – probes can be installed at greater depths (down to 1.6 metres) – to better understand how much moisture is in the soil, where plant roots are active and how much moisture is being used by the crop, particularly during the crucial flowering to grain-fill stage.

Modern telemetry systems also provide the ability to log and send data from more than one source. This means growers can link multiple sensors, such as from soil probes, rain gauges, weather stations and even in-paddock cameras, to access data that impacts on farm business decisions.

Mr Wilksch advocates local networks of probes, paired with other data collection tools such as weather stations, as a way for neighbouring growers to value-add to their individual investments.

“The location of a soil-moisture probe is important to get the best out of the data, so neighbouring growers who each have a probe installed in different soil types and in different crops can extrapolate the information from other farms to their own,” he said.

The more data growers can collect, the better they can use it to make decisions. Multiple years of data from probes can give a clear picture of how much soil moisture there is at any point in time compared with previous seasons.

However, in-paddock data collection does not just guide crop-management decisions. Mr Wilksch coordinates weather station data from across the northern Yorke Peninsula and this was used over summer to issue harvest-fire risk alerts.

Grower tip: Regardless of the technology, Mr Wilksch says location and correct installation are critical to gain the best value out of the investment. This includes ensuring cabling is vermin-proof, the weather sensors are in a representative location on a farm, and placing the probes deep enough to avoid damage from machinery.

Soon: dipstick soil tests and apps to measure herbicide residues

A GRDC-funded national project is drilling into the potential effects of increased herbicide use on soil biological processes such as organic matter turnover, nitrogen cycling, phosphorus solubilisation and disease suppression.

The five-year project is coordinated by the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (DPI) with partners in Western Australia, SA, Victoria and Queensland.

NSW DPI researcher Dr Mick Rose shared insights from the second year of the project with growers and advisers at the Adelaide GRDC Research Update, including the findings of a national soil survey.

Portrait of Dr Mick Rose

NSW DPI researcher Dr Mick Rose told growers and advisers at the Adelaide GRDC Research Update that rapid in-field dipstick – similar to pregnancy test kits – will soon be available for in-paddock assessments of soil herbicide residue levels.

PHOTO: Rebecca Jennings

“The soil survey found that residues of certain herbicides, including glyphosate and its metabolite aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA), trifluralin and diflufenican, frequently persist at significant levels in soil prior to the winter cropping season,” Dr Rose said.

“We know soil biological functions are generally resilient to short-term impacts of herbicide applications at label rates; however, the longer-term impacts are not as well understood. There is evidence that herbicide residues at levels found in the soil survey could contribute to reduced crop performance, most likely through direct phytotoxicity.”

This research is developing tools for growers and advisers to rapidly diagnose herbicide residues in soil.

“We are currently testing rapid in-field dipstick technology – similar to pregnancy-test kits – that can give an indication of herbicide residue levels in soil within 30 minutes,” Dr Rose said.

This will be supported by improved computer modelling to account for the effects of weather and soil type on herbicide persistence, so growers and advisers can estimate soil residue concentrations in individual paddocks at a certain time after herbicide application. A handheld tool, such as an app, will package this research output for quick reference in the paddock.

Grower tip: Strategies to avoid herbicide residue accumulation and potential damage to soil functions and crops include routine rotation of pre-emergent herbicides, reliable record-keeping to help identify potential residue issues, strategic tillage to aerate soil and stimulate herbicide breakdown, and building organic matter to stimulate microbial activity.

Later: robotic paddock assessments

unmanned aerial vehicle

A SARDI research project tested how autonomous and aerial devices could be incorporated into field trials. They used the prototype Ladybird robot (below) and a UAV (above).

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and robots seem to be ‘all the go’ at the moment, but South Australian Research and Development Institute researchers Brooke Schofield, Dr Rohan Kimber and Larn McMurray have shown they are much more than just ‘toys’ by putting these technologies through their paces to see how they could guide crop management.

The trio looked at how autonomous and aerial devices could be incorporated into field trials by taking rapid measurements of phenotypic traits, such as canopy height and density, in pulse and cereal crops in the Lower Mid North of SA.

The study used a fixed wing Trimble UX5 Unmanned Aircraft System and a ground-based robot called the Ladybird (named after its resemblance to the beetle). The prototype Ladybird was developed at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) at the University of Sydney for use on commercial farms, and was adapted by Dr James Underwood for phenomics applications as part of this study.

Data collected by the UAV and robot were evaluated against visual assessments and manual ground measurements taken by a GreenSeeker® handheld crop sensor.

UAV Control centre

Grower tip: Watch the Ladybird in action at the University of Sydney’s ACFR website.

The Ladybird was equipped with lidar and hyperspectral sensors to collect height data and true-colour imagery. The hyperspectral images contained fine spectral information in the visible and near-infrared electromagnetic spectrum, capturing data at wavelengths that human observers cannot see. These images were used to calculate the crop’s normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) – an indication of its overall ‘greenness’.

Ms Schofield told participants at the GRDC Update that although this project was a proof-of-concept exercise – and the first time the Ladybird technology was applied to a phenotype research trial – it delivered some useful insights into the role automated ground-based and aerial technology can play.

Initial investigation showed that a relationship exists between the UAV and GreenSeeker® NDVI values. The change of NDVI as the plant grows could be used to determine plant developmental stage or overall health – for example, as crops begin to mature and turn yellow a low NDVI is recorded.

“If a solid relationship can be defined between these two methods of measuring NDVI, it may be possible to only use the UAV method,” Ms Schofield said.

The Ladybird results are also positive: “The repeatability [self-consistency] of hyperspectral NDVI data and lidar crop height data is very high (r2=1), and the lidar and hyperspectral data measured by the Ladybird is at least as accurate as the manually acquired data sources for measuring NDVI and height,” Ms Schofield said.

The Ladybird system was substantially more time-efficient for acquiring, managing and processing data compared with conventional manual practices, especially for subsequent repeat visits at a site.

“This research has achieved a greater understanding of the capacity of autonomous ground-based platforms and UAVs as potential labour-saving devices for agricultural studies and field-based trials, and as a way to remove any observer bias from crop measurements.”

More information:

Leighton Wilksch,;

Dr Mick Rose,;

Brooke Schofield,

Portrait of Michael Moodie and Allan Mayfield

Mallee agronomist Michael Moodie (left), of Moodie Agronomy, catches up with SA agronomist Allan Mayfield, Mayfield Consulting, at the Adelaide GRDC Research Update.


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Research Updates:

GRDC Research Updates unveil tomorrow's tools and technologies – Auburn

GRDC Research Updates unveil tomorrow's tools and technologies – Goondiwindi

GRDC Research Updates unveil tomorrow's tools and technologies – Perth

GRDC Research Updates unveil tomorrow's tools and technologies – Wagga Wagga

GRDC Research Updates unveil tomorrow's tools and technologies – Yuna

GRDC Project Code DAN00180, DAS00142

Region South