A large harvesting machine operating in a paddock of wheat.

The project examined the feasibility of selectively harvesting malting barley.

Precision Agriculture: extracting additional value from grain production through selective harvesting

New research aims to take lessons learnt in the wine industry and to apply these in grains and so ‘proof the concept’ of selective harvesting in the grains industry so as to enhance its profitability.

  • 12 April 2010 | Updated 3 February 2014

Selective harvesting

Work conducted by CSIRO and its collaborators in the wine industry over the last 5–10 years has demonstrated that by applying a Precision Agriculture approach to winegrape production and segregating vineyards at harvest on the basis of fruit quality or suitability to particular product streams, significant increases in profitability can be achieved.

A man standing in the middle of a paddock of barley ready for harvest.

Sampling barley immediately pre-harvest.

In one particular example, increases of over A$40 000/ha were gained in terms of the retail value of the wine produced.

Thus, a vineyard which when harvested as a single unit produced fruit suitable for a wine that sold for A$19/bottle, in fact had a significant area in which the fruit was suitable for a product which sold for A$30/bottle.

Selective harvesting is therefore the split-picking of a crop in order to achieve particular production objectives. To date, this kind of strategy has been the main application of Precision Viticulture.

Different approaches to Precision Agriculture in different industries

In the grains industries in contrast, the main interest on Precision Agriculture has been to identify zones for which differential management of inputs is warranted, and so achieve increased profitability by better targeting the use of these inputs.

Savings in fertiliser costs achieved through reduced and more targeted application have been a particular area of focus amongst farmers who have adopted the technology.

However, hitherto there have been few attempts to gain further increases in profitability through selective harvesting and product segregation, even though grain growers can achieve price premiums (or incur price penalties) for grain that meets particular quality criteria; malting barley and durum wheat are particular examples.

One reason for this is the less vertically integrated nature of the grains industry by comparison with the wine industry.

Green stems of Barley with seed heads

The project considered options for mid-season management for improved quality outcomes.

New Precision Agriculture research for the grains industry

Grain is usually harvested whole paddock by whole paddock, a practice that lumps good quality grain with that of lesser quality.

Separating grain on the basis of its quality at the point of harvest has the potential to significantly increase the average price of grain leaving a farm by pre-segregating it into parcels that maximise the tonnage of higher quality grades.

The recent availability of on-the-go protein sensing technology, coupled with the ever-declining terms of trade endured by many grains growers, means that the time is now right to examine the opportunity for grains growers to extract additional value for their businesses through selective harvesting.

Whilst changes to harvest logistics may be required to facilitate this, CSIRO are proofing the selective harvesting concept in a new Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) funded project in collaboration with growers of malting barley in the Eyre Peninsular, Yorke Peninsular and mid-North regions of South Australia.

The project will run until 2012 with the objectives of:

  • assessing the potential of zone-based harvesting strategies to maximise returns from barley
  • minimising grain quality problems in barley through targeted in-season management.

Learn more about CSIRO's Sustainable Agriculture Flagship.