Can 'big data' step-change Australian agriculture?

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Photo of Richard Heath, Australian Farm Institute

Richard Heath, of the Australian Farm Institute, says more whole-of-industry effort is needed if Australian agriculture is to benefit from technologies able to aggregate and analyse large amounts of data as a farm tool.

PHOTO: Nicole Baxter

Digital agriculture – what it means and what it can do – is rapidly becoming part of the farming vernacular as growers and their support professionals begin to tap into this new toolkit.

One specialist in the area, Australian Farm Institute general manager of research Richard Heath, says one way to look at digital agriculture – from a practical perspective – is to consider how precision agriculture, which is already in place, can better inform decision-making.

He has been involved with a research initiative called ‘Accelerating precision agriculture to decision agriculture’ (P2D), which is investigating the use of ‘big data’ in Australian agriculture. The initiative is funded by the Federal Government’s Rural Research and Development for Profit program and draws support from all 15 of Australia’s research and development corporations, including the GRDC.

Mr Heath says ‘decision agriculture’ is so termed because it uses information from precision technology, which is connected seamlessly in the ‘cloud’ via information aggregation platforms that, in turn, are linked to decision-support analytics to facilitate improved decision-making.

As part of the P2D project, the Australian Farm Institute was tasked with writing case studies to show how big data is being used in agricultural supply chains in the US.

Agrian

One case study focused on the farm management software platform Agrian.

Mr Heath says Agrian started as a compliance-based system for horticultural production in California, one of the most regulated states in the US, but has been expanded to meet the needs of broadacre agriculture.

He says Agrian supports compliance through the supply chain, from an agronomist’s recommendation to a farmer’s actual use, ultimately helping to assure safe application of crop protection products. Other information that can be stored on Agrian includes paddock records, planting data, yield maps, satellite imagery, the results of mobile scouting, crop planning and budgeting records, laboratory analysis results, nutrient management and crop protection use and variable-rate application data.

Another feature of the platform is a manufacturer product database that enables users to search for detailed product information as well as safety and compliance data, such as where use of a product might be restricted. “Regulatory requirements for agriculture, particularly in relation to environmental sustainability measurements, are likely to increase over time,” he says.

“Platforms like Agrian provide the opportunity for farm equipment and record-keeping software to interface and integrate with other compliance and stewardship programs.”

Mr Heath says the end result is that compliance programs become less of a burden for farmers and more integrated with standard farm management practice.

To illustrate how this might work, he points to the Canadian Field Print Initiative (http://fieldprint.ca), a Canadian Government program to provide environmental best practice benchmarks for fertiliser application.

“The developers of Agrian worked with the Canadian Government to create APIs so that farm data collected on Agrian’s platform feeds directly into the Canadian Field Print Initiative, eliminating the need to have duplicate systems for record-keeping.”

Farmers Business Network

Another case study was the Farmers Business Network, a US software-as-a-service platform.

Farmers access the service by paying a membership fee and then provide as much or as little yield, spraying or financial data as they wish.

In return, members can ask questions and be provided with anonymous aggregated information in the form of reports to answer queries such as: ‘On my soil type, what was the best-performing variety?’ or, ‘What was the fertiliser package that gave the best return?’ or, ‘What did people pay for their inputs and where were they bought?’

Mr Heath says Farmers Business Network has also moved into retailing by going directly to input manufacturers for bulk purchasing on behalf of its members. “The data that Farmers Business Network acquires through its members allows it to predict where there is likely to be need for crop inputs such as crop protection products and fertilisers,” he says.

He suggests this could force input manufacturers and suppliers to improve their service to growers. “It is a potential threat to suppliers who compete on price alone and is likely to lead to offerings based on a package of products bundled into production systems along with after-sales support and knowledge.”

Mr Heath says the Syngenta HYVIDO™ hybrid barley seed technology program in the UK (http://www.syngenta.co.uk/CBYG) is an example of a bundled offering. The program offers cash back to participating farmers if their purchased HYVIDO™ hybrid barley does not out-yield conventional barley by at least 500 kilograms a hectare in accredited comparison paddocks. Participation is contingent on growing the HYVIDO™ hybrid barley to a prescribed recipe, which includes at least one application of a Syngenta plant growth regulator product.

Mr Heath says such examples show how connected technologies and data have the potential to transform agriculture in Australia.

“But to make this happen, significant communications infrastructure, policy and trust issues need to be overcome, and it will require more whole-of-industry effort before the market takes over and starts to provide solutions.”

GRDC Research Codes CRD00004, ICN00021

More information:

Richard Heath,
02 9690 1388,
heathr@farminstitute.org.au

 

Growers such as Alistair Murdoch from Kooloonong, Victoria, already transmit harvest data, in real time, to cloud storage that is accessible by others he nominates, such as consultants or buyers.

PHOTO: Brad Collis

What is an API?

The common definition of an API (application programming interface) is a set of definitions, protocols and tools that software engineers use to build application software and which instruct different pieces of software on how to integrate and communicate.

Software developer MuleSoft compares APIs to waiters in a restaurant, whose job it is to deliver information and food to customers:

“Applications, data and devices all have APIs that allow computers to operate them and that’s ultimately what creates connectivity.”