Need to produce more with less
It is undeniable that our agricultural land is variable. Rural landscapes generally comprise a mix of flat and hilly land, a variety of land uses and drainage lines ranging from small short-lived creeks to large rivers. A range of soil types and soil properties exist and there may be considerable diversity of ecosystem function and condition across the landscape.
One consequence of landscape variability is that productivity is also variable. Farmers have known this for as long as they have been growing crops, but without methods for observing or reacting to this variation, they have been forced to manage paddocks and farms as though they were uniform. Dynamic conditions bought about by drought also necessitate improved management responses to plan for adverse scenarios and mitigate their impacts.
A major challenge for agriculture is to identify ways of increasing productivity with greater environmental constraints (less and different inputs). While we continue to optimise the use of inputs we need to find more ways of increasing potential yields, maximise profitability and enable the industry to respond to market opportunities.
Information leads to greater efficiency and extra benefits
We're investigating the application of precision management in a range of farming systems, including viticulture, broadacre cropping, dairy and sugar farming. Our research also looks at developing and refining tools to assess, monitor and redress environmental and economic risks associated with agricultural practices – potentially resulting in efficient use of water and fertilisers, targeted management of nitrogen pollution and maintenance of soil fertility.
Precision agriculture seeks to exert more control over a production system by recognising variation and managing different areas of land differently, according to a range of economic and environmental goals. To do this, the tools of Precision Agriculture are used to collect large amounts of data on crop or animal performance and the attributes of individual production areas (for example, fields, paddocks and blocks) at a high spatial resolution.
A number of enabling technologies are critical to precision agriculture. These include the global positioning system (GPS), geographical information systems (GIS), Variable-Rate Technology (VRT), soil sensors and yield monitors which, with GPS, enable georeferenced records of yield to be collected ‘on-the-go’ during harvest. Remote and proximal crop canopy sensing is also often invaluable whilst digital elevation models are often key to understanding the variation in both crops and soils. With these technologies, growers are better able to observe, understand and manage the variability in their production systems by tailoring inputs to desired outputs.
Precision agriculture can also be used as a tool to help match land use to land use capability. This helps address sustainability issues by optimising profitability in the productive parts of the landscape while conserving biodiversity and natural resource base in less productive parts.
Selective harvesting and product segregation, already successfully applied in viticulture could also help grain growers gain further increases in profitability.