Survey shows need for education

By Phil Price

There is an urgent need for further education and training in precision agriculture (PA) methods for growers, advisers, and agronomists. This is the overall message emerging from your responses to the GRDC"s survey on PA, published in August"s Ground Cover.

Making allowances for the sample size and survey methods, the key findings included:

Even most of those using PA suggest they only know a little about the techniques.

The insert in the August edition of Ground Cover that described the projects supported by the GRDC within its Precision Agriculture initiative (sip09) also included a survey about the uptake and use of PA methods by graingrowers. The survey"s aim was to give a clearer picture of what PA techniques are being used, whether growers are planning to further adopt PA in coming years, and what problems growers would like to see taken up in PA research. The survey would also provide a base against which further surveys in future can track changes in uptake and use of PA methods, and help the GRDC to assess the impact and value of its investment in this area of research and development.

Data was collected using the Ground Cover self-completion questionnaire. This methodology was selected due to its low cost but, as anticipated, it has resulted in a relatively low response rate (221 returns) and a potentially biased sample.

It is expected however, that the sample bias is likely to remain relatively consistent in future repeats of the survey, which will allow some level of confidence when comparing future results with benchmark data. The survey questionnaire was developed by the sip09 research teams and finalised with the help of Pam Watson of Down To Earth Research; Ms Watson also analysed the returns and has prepared a full report to the GRDC.

This article summarises some of the results from the survey. The full report is available on the GRDC website.

We would like to thank all the growers, agronomists and researchers who completed and returned the survey. The information you provided will be very useful in helping to focus the work of the sip09 initiative.

The detailed comments many of you made are especially enlightening as to why growers have, or have not, taken up PA methods.

About one-third of survey respondents use some form of PA on their farm. (Note: due to the sampling method used, this result cannot be translated to the whole of the grains industry). Most respondents (73 percent) believe they have only a little knowledge of PA methods. As well, 59 percent of respondents currently using PA suggest they only know a little about the techniques. As survey respondents are likely to include "early adopters" of PA, this result suggests an urgent need for further education and training in PA methods for growers, advisers, agronomists and others.

Among respondents using PA methods, 79 percent use at least one tool to determine paddock variability. Use of yield maps (49 percent), photographs (45 percent) and other data (49 percent) are all relatively common.

Thirty-nine percent (39 percent) of respondents using PA use computer programs to combine data layers for their crop paddocks.

Similar to results for the previous measure, respondents who believe they have a great deal of knowledge on PA are significantly more likely than those with only a little knowledge to use computer programs (52 percent compared to 31 percent).

While 63 percent of survey respondents using PA manage various parts of the same paddock differently, relatively few use data such as yield maps and aerial or EM images to do so, with most relying on their experience of the paddock.

The proportion of northern region respondents using PA who manage parts of paddocks differently is substantially lower than in the southern region (31 percent compared to 79 percent).

Respondents who are more knowledgeable on PA are significantly more likely than those with only a little knowledge to rely on both paddock data and their experience of the paddock when managing variability (34 percent compared to 8 percent).

Data and maps of yield, soil type, soil or crop nutrient status, crop biomass and soil conductivity were more likely to be associated with PA farming than other listed factors by survey respondents using PA.

The proportion of more knowledgeable users linking soil conductivity, gross margin and elevation with PA is significantly higher than for their less knowledgeable counterparts.

Paddock maps, images or data relating to yield, soil type and soil or crop nutrient status are the most commonly used information when respondents use PA.

Survey results reveal that while some respondents associate specific types of information with PA, this association does not necessarily translate into actual use.

Yield monitors, GPS guidance and controlled traffic farming systems have been used by approximately half the respondents using PA during 2003-04.

Respondents who believe they have a great deal of PA knowledge have also tended to use GPS with auto steer and a variable rate applicator for seed or fertiliser.

PA as proportion of cropping program Respondents who have adopted PA tend to manage, on average, two-thirds of their cropping program in this way, as shown in Table 1 below.

Most (66 percent) respondents currently using PA intend to increase the proportion of their cropping program managed by PA in future.

This figure includes 56 percent of respondents who have only a little knowledge - indicating a need for further extension and education in PA.

Among survey respondents not currently using PA, 72 percent believe it has the potential to improve the profit of their cropping program, while 49 percent consider it could improve their environmental management.

A high 91 percent of respondents likely to use PA in the next five years believe it may result in higher profit levels and 61 percent would expect improvements in environmental management.

Survey results reveal that uptake of PA is likely to increase over the next 5 to 10 years. Fourteen percent of respondents suggest they are very likely to be using PA in the next five years, while 35 percent believe they are very likely to use PA within 10 years. This result also supports the need for further extension and information relating to PA.

The cost of PA equipment has been a barrier to uptake for 77 percent of survey respondents not currently using this technique. Cost versus benefit has been a problem for 65 percent.

Setting up equipment (34 percent), matching and understanding data sets (32 percent) and collecting and collating data (31 percent) have also proven to be substantial barriers.

PA articles appearing in Ground Cover would suit the needs of 90 percent of all respondents. This result must be viewed with some caution however, due to the methodology of collecting data (survey was included in a Ground Cover edition) and the potential sampling bias resulting. More than half (52 percent) would like to learn about PA in grower or adviser updates and 40 percent suggest farming journal articles. There is substantially less enthusiasm among survey respondents for electronic information, although this result may also be a result of sampling bias.

For more information:
Phil Price, consultant to the GRDC Sustainable Farming Systems Program, 02 6251 4669,

GRDC Research Code: DER00004, program 4