Data from the dirt means soils ain’t simply soils

The Australian
By Sue Neales

Western Victorian grain grower Stewart Hamilton is a young farmer already attuned to the potential of more and better information to transform his family’s farm business.

With two farms cropping 2700 hectares of land and located 200km apart, Mr Hamilton, 31, can already remotely check soil moisture sensors on his distant Charlton property via iPhone while working on his main Inverleigh farm.

He can also see how harvest yields are looking compared with previous years through inform­ation uploaded from a distant GPS-linked New Holland header to his office computer and local machinery dealer.

It’s a revolution in data collection in Australian agriculture that holds the potential to either turbo­charge or swamp farmers as they rise to the challenge of doubling food production by 2050.

The ability to collect, combine and analyse massive amounts of electronic data about the nation’s farms being gathered daily by hi-tech tractors, satellites, sensors, drones, irrigators, electronic anima­l ear tags and smart farming technology — known as the Big Data revolution — is already afoot in the US.

But a conference in Canberra yesterday heard that the adoption of Big Data’s power to help farmers then make better decisions was being hampered by poor inter­net speeds and mobile phone coverage in rural Australia, and concerns about who owns the farm data itself.

Mr Hamilton is less worried about issues of privacy and security if he lets data from his farm mach­inery, iPhone and other electronic tools be widely shared and analysed, than he is about keeping up with the pace of the revolution itself.

“I think Big Data has a place but it is also easy to get swamped with it, or not to use all the inform­ation you are receiving back to its full potential,” he said yesterday, while his tractor sowed a late wheat crop on its own using state-of-the-art auto-steer and variable seeding rate GPS technology.

Mr Hamilton’s views are backed by research from the US showing that at least 40 per cent of growers never collect or consult the data gathered by their hi-tech tractors as they sow, plough, spray and harvest crops.

They are simply too daunted by the volume of data generated and unsure how to use it properly to make them better farmers.

Meat and Livestock Australia figures are worse: of 3.6 million cattle and sheep slaughtered at abattoirs annually wearing indiv­idual electronic identification and traceability ear tags, producers only asked to be sent information from less than 1000 of the animals, to aid their selection of the best genetics.

Alex Ball, MLA’s productivity manager and farmer, says that producers will soon be provided with so much data that it threatens to overwhelm them.

This article was originally published in The Australian

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