AgTech Test Reaches Halfway Mark

Carwoola Pastoral Company is a family owned holding comprised of four properties near Bugendore, NSW. You may have read an article or two about the work that has been going on at this property - including the case study from June last year where we wrote about a project that began way back in March 2018 when more than twenty agtech companies put their hands-up to join an experiment that would see their tech deployed across the property.

Good news is that the agtech project is only just passing its halfway mark and the technology being used on the property is already providing a return on investment and guiding management decisions. 

The range of agtech devices from a range of different vendors are being put through their paces in a commercial setting. At the halfway mark, what the project is revealing is exactly which sensors are reliable and robust and fit for purpose at Carwoola.

Darren Price is overseeing the project and has been able to provide AgTech Finder with a snapshot of some of the many cost and time‑saving benefits the business has experienced from using these ag‑tech solutions so far. He was also happy to share some of the lessons and watch outs.

The tech includes everything from smart cattle tags to soil probes.

Saving Time and Money on Water Runs

With 40 water sensors installed on dams, troughs and tanks at ‘Carwoola’ alone and many more across the company’s other three properties, this technology has already significantly reduced time and money spent on checking water points.

A typical water run at Carwoola used to involve checking five tanks, nine troughs and six dams. It took around an hour to complete a 14km water run, which needed to be done seven days a week in summer – costing the business just under $20,000 a year. The water sensors have reduced the need to check troughs manually by 70%.

“That’s quite a good payback in 12 months,” says Darren, “We still do physical checks, obviously, but it gives me a really good early warning system on issues.”

Another advantage was the ability to check water points remotely, and with 8km of Molonglo River running through Carwoola, Darren also installed flood level detection sensors on the property as an early warning system so livestock can be moved to safer paddocks if required.

You can see a demonstration of one of the water monitors in the video below. These sensors measure water level by using an ultrasonic pulse. Once the measurements are made the sensor transmits the measurements via the Sigfox network installed at the Carwoola site. Sigfox is a global wireless network technology, connecting low powered sensor devices. You can check the Sigfox strength at your property through this link. https://coverage.waterwatch.io/. If you do not have Sigfox coverage there are still plenty of other options!). You can find out more here in a case study by the vendor who supplied these sensors and how they were used at Carwoola. 

Labour Efficiency

Carwoola Pastoral Company’s feeder cattle business requires cattle to be weighed every four to six weeks, in mob sizes from 100–160 head. Manual weighing and drafting previously required three staff, averaging 60–80 head/hour.

However, the installation of an air‑operated, three‑way auto‑drafting system with an auto RFID scanner has lifted the drafting rate to 200 head/hour and removed the need for one labour unit. This is freeing employees up to do other tasks and the accuracy is spot on every time. We always know which animal has been weighted and drafted without the need of staff to manage this. 

Cattle producers work can be made easier and you require fewer hands if you installing an automated cattle crush.

Water monitoring devices on large properties can save you a long and hot day in the 4-wheeler checking dams and tanks.

Smart Livestock Monitoring

Smart cattle tags are being trialled in this project, creating the ability to track bulls during joining as well as to provide insights into grazing patterns.

The technology works by placing a tag in the animal’s ear which records real-time movements and ambient temperature. This allows Darren to track both the current GPS fix of their animal or mobs and gather much more crucial data about individual and group animal health and behaviour.

It works in conjunction with the National Livestock Identification System to allow the animal to be pinpointed via drone scanning or GPS fixes every hour through LoRa communications. This means remote assessment of the animal’s health and status is possible and treatments can then be administered without having to shift an entire mob.

“It’s a vital tool in improving an animal’s growth outcome and low stock stress handling techniques. It’s very quick and easy to get a snapshot of what the herd’s doing,” says Darren.

“I think the biggest return on investment and business change can come from using the smart tags with bulls, as it tracks how far an animal has moved in a period of time.

“We can identify bulls which aren’t moving about the herd, assess if they have any issues and swap them out. The potential to increase our calving percentage by even 5% is a big advantage.”

Darren is also using the smart tags to gather useful management information by group tracking mobs to analyse how they’re using supplement stations.

“It’s highlighted we may need to move some lick feeders to get them across more country.”

Smart ear tags allow you to to track and trace your cattle using either a solar or battery powered GPS ear tag. Each animal's location can be monitored.

Accurate Irrigation Scheduling

Darren is using soil probes to ensure greater accuracy in scheduling irrigation events for the two 23ha centre pivots on Carwoola, which irrigate lucerne and perennial rye.

“It’s expensive to irrigate so we want to change the way crops are reacting so we can maximise water use efficiency,” says Darren.

“I haven’t seen a stressed lucerne plant since I’ve been working with these sorts of tools. It’s really starting to maximise our growth.”

System capacity is the most important design criterion for centre pivots. In the past many systems were under- designed to minimise cost and were not able to match peak crop water requirements.

Satellite Pasture Management

“As a grazing business, Carwoola is constantly measuring pastures and we spend considerable time – an average of six hours/ month/property – assessing them,” Darren said.

Using satellite pasture management technology could save the business around $8,500 in pasture monitoring.

“The beauty of this technology is I’m able to assess this every week.

“Because it’s re‑evaluating and reporting regularly, when we get busy with feeding, this enables me to continue to do everything else I have to do and also do our pasture measurements.Darren Price presenting at MLA’s Red Meat 2018 Digital Tour, hosted by Carwoola.

There are a few very reliable system that use satellite measurements and allows farmers to input data to help manage their pastures.

Autonomous Vehicle

An unmanned autonomous vehicle is also undergoing testing at Carwoola. The vehicle was designed for the US military to carry supplies to troops in combat has been customised by HDT Expeditionary Systems, in partnership with MLA, to be used on Australian grazing properties.

MLA Manager – Supply Chain Technology Innovation, Darryl Heidke, said the six‑wheel vehicle was put through its paces at Carwoola in January, to test its robustness under agricultural conditions.

“The autonomous vehicle has potential to undertake a range of tasks on‑farm, such as detecting weeds, towing feed, fuel and water trailers, and moving livestock,” says Darryl, "The vehicle tracks its own way around the property performing tasks and without any incidents or collisions." 

The autonomous vehicle is being tested at Carwoola to evaluate how producers could use them for on-farm tasks such as weed control. So far, the vehicle is doing a great job as a scout and as an extra set of eyes patrolling the property. 

Has it run into any fences? No - because the autonomous 4-wheeler has a collision avoidance system.

By setting GPS points for the vehicle it knows where to stop after each leg of a mission.

3 Lessons So Far!

  1. Don’t expect to just buy any sensor off the shelf and get results – be prepared to spend a little time finding right tool for the job!

  2. Consider the realities of where you are locating you tech - most devices will require some sort of protection to prevent damage from livestock! (cattle and sheep nibble sensors. Goats eat them)

  3. The ability to monitor your business and farm, even when you’re off‑farm is a huge comfort and a valuable return. 

Over 200 sensors were originally installed, and the majority are still in place, with just a small number being removed or replaced with alternative tech because they ended up not being fit for purpose.