Precision Ag and the fodder industry

Darren Keating, AFIA Executive Officer

In recent years the use of precision Ag technology in Australia’s broad acre agriculture sector has been steadily increasing. This has led to technology including GPS guided machinery, remote sensors and variable rate application technology becoming relatively common. As this edition of Focus on Fodder is all about technology we thought we’d do a quick scan of what lies ahead for fodder in the field of precision Ag, in particular the area of yield mapping, and some thoughts on evaluating if it has a place in your business.

Precision Ag is loosely defined as the process for observing, assessing and responding to small scale variation in the on farm production process. While there are a number of tools that fall under the banner of precision Ag one that has strong potential for increasing efficiencies in the fodder industry is yield mapping. This technology creates data that allows land and crop variability to be identified and managed, in a cropping focused system this is typically in the form of varying seeding rates and fertiliser application.

In recent years researchers and machinery companies have been working on developing yield sensors that allow on-the-go collection of hay and forage yields in a spatial manner. This has included work on mowers, forage harvesters and balers however most of the work has focused on forage harvesters and big square balers. While similar technology is common place in the grains industry having to account for moisture content adds in an extra challenge for hay and silage.

Recent advances in microwave technology which allow real time moisture measurements have helped greatly in this area. However we are still left with patchy yield data thanks to the impact of cutting and raking effectively “striping” the crop. Also where the crop is baled there is further noise in the system from fodder being accumulated into dots across the paddock where the bales land.

Looking at this challenge for fodder the focus seems to have moved onto measuring the crop biomass prior to harvest, either in the growing crop or just in front of the mower using technology such as the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) which is related to the crops density and nitrogen status. This technology has been used for satellite imagery for a number of years however there is now work being done on measuring NDVI with sensors attached to the front of the mower. This has the potential to give yield data for fodder that more closely resembles data from grain harvesters.

As precision Ag tools, such as yield mapping, for fodder producers become more readily available the real question becomes how do you decide if it’s right for you? The following dot points run through a few key considerations for anyone thinking about investing in precision Ag.

  • Have you got the basics of your cropping rotation right first? The GRDC’s guide to Precision Ag discusses a range of case studies from farmers who have implemented precision Ag into their business. This showed a wide variation in the return on investment for grain farmers implementing precision Ag in their cropping systems.  The overall finding was unless you have the basics for your cropping program in order then investment in precision Ag does not stack up. The basics in this case cover seed variety, rotation, pest/weed/disease management and crop nutrition. Given the similarities between grain and fodder production this is well worth taking note of.
  • What is the cost of the system? Measuring the costs of precision Ag is generally simpler than measuring the benefits as it mostly focuses on investment in equipment. However you also need consider both the upfront costs of buying and installing the equipment, as well as ongoing costs including software updates and resources required to store information safely.
  • What is the benefit? This can be more difficult to measure but it is important to remember that we are talking about benefits, not just increased revenue. Information about your paddocks can be an investment that results in better management (i.e. weeds and soil nutrition) and higher profits in the future.
  • Is the item you are spending money on a good way to generate the benefit you want? Countless farmers across Australia have mountains of data collected on their crops and farms that they are yet to use in any meaningful way. Before investing in precision Ag be sure that you know how you are going to use the data you collect.
  • Stay informed. Precision Ag is a constantly evolving science so it’s worth keeping an eye out for new and emerging technology.
  • What issues or opportunities have other early adopters faced with precision Ag? Talking to people using and developing this technology either in Australia or overseas and hearing firsthand about the application of this technology will help flesh out the true cost benefit you might expect from implementing this technology.  There are also plenty of articles and case studies on the internet that discuss situations where precision Ag has been implemented into businesses.

If you are looking for further information on precision Ag Check out the “FodderCare” area on the AFIA website. Here you will find a number of links to relevant articles. Also if you are using a yield mapping or other precision technology in your fodder business AFIA would love to hear about your experiences. Please feel free to contact one of the AFIA team to tell us how it’s working for you.

 

If you want to look into precision Ag more AFIA recommends the below online resources as a good starting point;