“Cocky with a few ideas” turns data into profit

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Image of Darrin Lee

Darrin Lee checks remote moisture-monitoring stations connected wirelessly on his Mingenew, WA, property.

PHOTO: Evan Collis

For WA grower Darrin Lee, the value of digital agriculture is the ability to remove duplication of processes, to connect to his business remotely and to generally farm smarter

Darrin Lee is a busy man. He manages a 6500-hectare family partnership at his family’s ‘Bligh Lee Farms’ property at Mingenew and when Ground Cover spoke to him, he was between trips to grain-industry events in his capacity as a member of the GRDC’s Western Panel and CBH Group’s Grower Advisory Council. Earlier this year he was also in the US researching digital agriculture.

Not surprisingly, he is a vocal and practical advocate for improved communications infrastructure in rural areas. Rather than wait for ‘someone’ to do ‘something’, Darrin is busily rolling out his own on-farm infrastructure to better connect his business to outside services and businesses. This includes personally overseeing the development of bespoke technology to manage farm data.

But while he keeps a software programmer on speed dial, Darrin loves nothing more than dropping ‘off the radar’ for a weekend fishing trip with his family. He is a man looking to farm smarter and to free up time for more of the important things in life.

Fresh perspective

Darrin has not always been a grain grower. He spent 15 years working at the National Australia Bank before he and his wife Steph bought into her family’s farming business. Today, ‘Bligh Lee Farms’ is a partnership between Darrin, Steph, Steph’s brother Peter and Peter’s wife Lorraine.

Snapshot

Growers: family partnership between Darrin Lee and Steph Bligh-Lee and Peter and Lorraine Bligh
Property: ‘Bligh Lee Farms’
Location: Mingenew, Western Australia
Farm size: 6500 hectares
Annual average season rainfall: 300 millimetres
Enterprises: cropping and sheep (self-replacing Merinos and prime lambs)
Soil types: predominantly red loam, some lighter loam and cracking heavy clays
Soil pH: 5.5 to 6.5
Cropping program (2016): 2850ha wheat, 350ha barley, 410ha albus lupins, 200ha narrowleaf lupins, 345ha oats and 245ha canola

With 19 different harvests on his books, Darrin relishes the tangibility of farming – of growing food – compared with “moving money around”. However, he draws on his financial background to look for productivity gains in how he does business.

‘Bligh Lee Farms’ is on the doorstep of CBH Group’s Mingenew grain-receival facility – the largest receival point in the southern hemisphere that is not a port.

This proximity is a plus at harvest, when Darrin runs the farm’s road train from paddocks just 13 to 35 kilometres from the facility. Harvest was just around the corner when Ground Cover spoke to Darrin – he was quietly optimistic about the current season on the back of 293 millimetres of growing-season rainfall (up to the end of August).

“Our annual average overall is supposed to be 300mm but it’s been a long time between drinks. If we have a soft finish and dodge the ‘f’ word [frost], this will be one of the most productive years on record,” he says.

On a farm where the limiting factor is rain (and without the constraints of non-wetting sands) this full moisture profile is anticipated to deliver about three tonnes per hectare for wheat, compared with an average over the past five years of 1.87t/ha.

The business faces seasonal variability. Over the years, annual production has ranged from thousands of tonnes of wheat to not delivering a single load.

“These peaks and troughs are certainly the most challenging aspect of farming in this environment,” Darrin says.

Driven by a desire to minimise exposure to dry years and maximise potential in good seasons, Darrin first dipped his toe into the digital-agricultural waters four years ago.

He was first an early adopter of unmanned-aerial-vehicle (UAV) technology, using it to count germination rates and locate weeds. But frustrated by their unreliability – and the hip-pocket pain when his $30,000 machines came crashing down – Darrin revisited his guiding principle: keep it simple.

“Sure, drones are sexy, but I had to bring it back to why we were using them – what was our value proposition? We were spending a lot of time collecting data, but not using it.”

Through his foray into UAVs, Darrin connected with Western Australian software developer Richard Riddle, the creator of Crop Manager, a predictive web-based program designed to guide agronomic activities. Darrin saw real value for his farm in the potential to link digital agriculture technologies, such as soil moisture probes and weather stations, to make decisions using real-time information.

Darrin and Richard developed probes to automatically and remotely measure soil moisture. The probes, manufactured in South Africa but supplied and supported in Australia, are accompanied by an application tailored for Darrin’s property that collects data on temperature, wind and relative humidity and transmits this information (in real time) to his mobile devices.

At its simplest, Darrin’s tailored Crop Manager pulls together information about phenology (such as crop growth stage), climate and weather (rainfall and heat units), soil condition (plant-available water, water use) and pests and weeds, compares it to past seasons and extrapolates this data.

The app is also pre-emptive – it remembers historical combinations of these factors and alerts Darrin to potential problems via text message.

“If the same weather conditions and the same crop phenology stage occur, it will send my phone a warning to say four years ago this happened at this stage, check for heliothis or stripe rust or whichever pest or disease lines up with the conditions and plant life cycle,” he says.

The app also guides input decisions. In 2015, Darrin did not apply any nitrogen, largely based on information that indicated there were sufficient residue nitrates in the crop and soil.

“This is an example of how digital agriculture is another tool in the box. We still combine it with our own ‘gut feel’, but it has given us more measurements and more confidence to make decisions,” Darrin says.

“We might not always get it right and there may be glitches in the system, but by making the best decision at the time, digital agriculture will hopefully allow better profitability and adjustment of cost factors to increase our bottom line.”

Data for decisions

One of Darrin’s mantras is: quality data in allows for quality information out.

Image of Darrin Lee with a sensor

Darrin Lee has established a network of sensors across his property to collect real-time data for faster, accurate decision-making.

PHOTO: Evan Collis

His desire to collect and use quality data from across the entire business was the catalyst for his latest digital agriculture project – to network ‘Bligh Lee Farms’ and turn data into profit.

Darrin reckons he is “just a cocky with a few ideas” and is quick to credit the systems software-engineering team, including Annie Brox, managing director of operations support systems company Origo.

The real-time data-collection system they developed meets Darrin’s strict criteria:

  • be connected;
  • be inter-operable, so every piece of machinery and tool can ‘talk’;
  • be easy to use to ensure the buy-in of the property’s workforce; and
  • be realistic with technology (some off-the-shelf) retro-fitted to existing machinery.

So, what does this digital agriculture actually look like, and how does Darrin use it? By the end of this year, he plans to to have nine moisture probes/rain buckets across the farm. Three 20-metre-high wi-fi masts will enable faster data collection and will provide virtually unlimited upload/download capacity (compared with the farm’s current limit of 5GB/month via satellite).

Each unit in his fleet of John Deere machines contains a device akin to a black box that captures data and transmits it back to the home server.

The intuitive system developed by Origo means machine operators have to enter only a few ‘yes’/‘no’ prompts on their iPad to get the information they need to begin spraying, seeding or harvesting.

Flexibility is also important. If a pre-entered variety changes, Darrin can remotely adjust this information and sync it across the network.

(Although the software designers have worked with John Deere to design platforms and dashboards that interact and combine different manufacturers’ systems, the data collected remains the farm’s intellectual property.)

The day-to-day ‘face’ of the system is a series of dashboards that Origo designed to give Darrin access from anywhere in the world via his smartphone. The system allows Darrin to remotely:

  • collect real-time data from each machine (two headers, two airseeders, two sprayers, the road train, chaser bin), including running data (such as fuel level, service schedule, operator details) and agronomic information (spray rates, droplet size, crop yield, etc.);
  • see how much rainfall has been received, where it fell, the growth stage of crops, how much moisture they require and where the moisture sits within the profile; and
  • monitor farm assets such as the 110t field bin for harvest management and stock water points for remote operation (turning pumps on/off).

The technology is still being put through its paces, with hardware needing to be ‘ruggedised’ to withstand the realities of farming: dust, water, hungry birds and curious foxes. Darrin also manually checks a plastic rain gauge to ground-truth the electronic units.

Creating value

Interestingly, for a grower so focused on technology, Darrin does not use variable-rate technology (VRT) in his operations, for the simple reason that he does not see the value for his situation.

“While we have yield-mapped since the late 1990s, we haven’t progressed to VRT because we don’t see the value proposition on our farm, as our soil is not highly variable. Real-time data is where I see value – actual data we can use, that is simple, adaptable, achievable and improves our bottom line.”

The obvious question is, what has this all cost? Darrin says the investment to date has been about $150,000, but the data-supported decision to not spread urea last year has already almost covered this cost.

He has also realised the benefits of this real-time data to plan and budget. For example, Crop Manager provides projected available moisture and yield forecasts, and last year, the forecast yield against actual delivered loads was reasonably accurate.

Picture this: it is the middle of harvest, there are two headers in the paddock and Darrin is operating the road train. While waiting in the receival line, he can log into the app on his phone and literally look inside the grain bin – thanks to a camera – to check the grain level. He can manage the occupational health and safety of his staff by monitoring how long they have been behind the tractor wheel. Lorraine and Steph, who manage the livestock, can remotely operate trough pumps no matter where they are.

There are other benefits of this remote monitoring system: from a security perspective on bulk fuel storage and sheds, and for machinery maintenance – Darrin receives a text message when a machine is due for
a service.

The system also removes duplication, saving time and labour. For example, it used to take 90 minutes for someone to drive around the farm to check its rain gauges. Manual rain records would then need to be entered into a computer, creating duplication and potential inaccuracies if someone forgot to empty a gauge. Now this data is available in a consistent, real-time, electronic form.

The future of farming

While there is reservation in the grains industry about ‘all things digital agriculture’, Darrin’s dream of running a paperless farm
is motivated by his desire to farm smarter.

“Ten or 15 years ago, people scoffed at auto steer and it was costly and complex. Now, it’s the standard. Ten years from now, I believe we won’t call it digital agriculture – we’ll just call it farming.”

He does have one caveat: “Connectivity. Without it, full uptake of digital technologies in farming just won’t be possible.”

While individual wi-fi is a solution for his farm for now, it does not stop Darrin’s agitation for improved connectivity for rural areas and he is working in his local area to develop solutions.

Looking ahead, he aims to positon ‘Bligh Lee Farms’ as a demonstration farm so growers can view the digital technology, and has plans to introduce protein mapping – as long as the value proposition stacks up.

“Digital agriculture is really just the use of real-time information to make better decisions, remove duplication of process, and increase efficiencies. It doesn’t have to be scary or expensive, it can be as simple as an electronic rain gauge. If technology can make a process simpler, save time and effort, and improve profitability then it allows us to do things we love.”

For Darrin, this means spending time with family and catching the odd fish.

More information:

Darrin Lee,
blighleefarms@bigpond.com,
@dklracing (Twitter) 

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