AgTech Weekly News Dashboard: 12th June 2020

In this edition of the weekly news dashboard powered by AgTech Finder...

AgTech Finder discovers how partnerships between fertiliser companies and service providers are providing better data to manage crop health. We learn more about using GPS ear tags to track large furry animals. And we investigate a vertical farming success story out of Burleigh Heads. We've also got a story about the cost of producing sheep. Read on...

How can growers get free access to normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) images?

A partnership between a Western Australian fertiliser company and an Australian precision agriculture company will give growers access to satellite images of paddocks to help with crop-nutrition decisions.

The freshly inked deal between Summit Fertilizers and DataFarming, based in Queensland, will allow Summit's clients and area managers free and regular access, through the SummitConnect user platform, to 10 by 10 metre normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) images, updated at least every five days.

This data can be overlaid with Summit's inSITE soil test results to provide growers with new ways of inspecting their paddocks' performance.

It is hoped the new technology will enable Summit's area managers to more readily monitor crop and pasture health, pinpoint on-ground issues in-season and save time and money knowing where to best target fertiliser applications.

Summit field research manager Mark Gherardi said the company has long held the view that a properly implemented soil and plant analysis program was the best foundation for building more informed nutrient application decisions.

"To that end, it's important to identify what you've got before you can truly determine what you need, it's why we developed our Summit inSITE platform, to better enable growers broader access to their soil and plant analysis data," Dr Gherardi said.

The partnership between the two companies will allow growers to gauge some near real time feedback, or historic analysis of the relationship between soil nutrient testing, fertiliser applications and crop and pasture growth.

First published as 'Tech deal aims to improve pasture management' Farm Weekly, 12 June, 2020

Who is using technology to grow salad greens, herbs, tomatoes and strawberries 12-months a year?

Aussie company Stacked Farm, a fully automated vertical indoor farm, has been gaining international interest amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Stacked Farm, founded in 2017, produces salad greens and herbs like lettuce and rocket, and has the capacity to produce tomatoes and strawberries. It's even looking at testing out a type of blueberry next year.

The company is headquartered in Queensland and has plans to open up farms across Australia as well. The farm is fully automated, with the produce packed and sealed once its harvested by robotic farming.

"We are not too dissimilar to a normal farm where we go through markets and we go through wholesalers and food service distributors," say Mr Smith who runs the operation located in Burleigh Heads.

And while it mainly supplies to the food service industry, Stacked Farm is looking at a move into retail so people can grab its produce from supermarket shelves as well. "We haven't got the capacity to do that at the moment," Smith said. "But when we scale up to our Victorian farm, we will certainly have the capacity to do that and we'll be looking for retail partners to jump on the journey that we're on."

The farms are temperature controlled and automated and Stacked Farm grows its produce 12 months a year, without relying on different seasons. Its products are grown in a temperature-controlled environment that is fully automated from seeding to harvesting. The company is looking at post-harvest automation as part of its next business phase.

Stacked Farm also makes barley-based livestock feed. "In a drought-vulnerable country like Australia, there's a lot of opportunity there because while we all think about human consumption, animals are a massive part of the food chain that needs to be considered," Smith said.

The company's employees are mainly in the science and tech field rather than traditional farm labourers.

"We're not like traditional farms where we require pickers, packers and harvesters," Smith said. "We employ more labour leaning towards engineering, software engineering, mechanical engineering, CAD designers [and] horticultural scientists."

First published as 'Aussie 'vertical farm' company gains international interest amid concerns about food supply during the coronavirus pandemic', Yahoo Finance, 5th June 2020

How are GPS ear tags tracking and controlling feral buffalos across 25 million hectares?

Australia is known for its exotic and unique local fauna, but it is also home to a massive number of feral animals.There are, for example, around 1.2 million feral camels, and they are doubling in population every nine years.

There are also believed to be 24 million feral pigs, 6.3 million feral cats, 2.6 million feral goats, and 5 million feral donkeys. These introduced species have a major impact on the environment, and on agriculture.

In the Northern Territory, the estimated 160,000 feral buffalos have become an export product to South-East Asia, but they also do significant damage to the environment. They damage natural waterholes, destroy wetlands and spread weeds.

Last month, in what could establish a precedent for dealing with these pests, an $4 million project was announced to help manage the buffalo using new micro-satellite technology.

Each weighing around 5 kilograms and no larger than a shoebox, a constellation of low orbiting micro-satellites orbiting at around 450 kilometers above the earth will track the herds of buffalos from signals sent by GPS tracking ear tags. Several thousands of the animals will be tagged.

“We’re not talking about individual paddocks here, we’re talking about 25 million hectares over the three properties we are working on,” CSIRO scientist Dr. Justin Perry told the ABC. For reference, that is about the size of the U.K.

Up until now, researchers have used land-based stations to collect data on buffalo movement, but the structures just weren’t tough enough to withstand the conditions, which include cyclones and extreme weather events.

Now, a combination of 5G, micro-satellites and IoT technology holds out the promise not only of monitoring incursions by these animals, largely introduced to Australia in the 19th century, but in controlling their movements.

The buffalo tracking satellites are no isolated example. In Queensland, telemetric technology is being trialed which enables traps for feral pigs to be operated from a remote device, such as a mobile phone.

The telemetric traps need only 3G mobile technology and operate with a satellite camera which sends out an alert notification and a real-time image whenever a movement is detected.

Live streamed footage can be viewed online and a trap door shut using an app if the image shows that a pig has been trapped.

The pig trap might be lower tech than the buffalo tracking, but they are both evidence of how Australian producers can use satellite technology to track, monitor and control animal movements.

First published as 'Space the Next Frontier (for Tracking Feral Buffalos)' CDO Trends, June 8th 2020

How much does technology cost to guarantee the production of female sheep?

A Victorian sheep producer has broken new ground by adopting a reproductive technology commonly used in the dairy industry.

The technology separates X and Y bearing sperm, giving farmers the option of breeding male or female offspring from their livestock.

Its use is much less prevalent in sheep, and Murnong Farming at Inverleigh, near Geelong, is among the early adopters.

Farm manager Josh Walter said the $28-per-head cost of the procedure will be easily repaid in productivity gains.

It has helped Murnong Farming's stud operation produce more ewes to fast-track the development of a new breed.

This is only a small part of our stud operation," Mr Walter said.

"You've got to have a crack at technology and technology providers have really got to have farms that want to try.

"It wasn't a huge outlay over and above our program, but it could have a substantial impact in the future."

Conventional artificial insemination programs provide no control over the gender of progeny.

Mr Walter said the use of semen sexing technology would reduce the amount of time required to develop the new breed by guaranteeing the production of female sheep.

"There was a "fair degree" of coordination involved" said Livestock Genetics sales manager Paul Douglas, who was involved in the project,

"I believe there will be breeders that will see a strategic opportunity to generate some more ewes or some more rams from a particular sire," he said.

"And there is certainly the potential for commercial application in artificial insemination programs at the commercial level.

"A lot of these things are unknown until we take the first brave step and I think the current exercise has been a good start."

First published as 'Farmer breaks new ground by adopting sexed semen for sheep' ABC Rural News, June 9th 2020

How is a new online tool in the UK helping producers deliver environmental goals as well as produce food?

A new online tool that uses environmental datasets to produce maps of the relative suitability of land for different environmental outcomes has been launched in the UK. The E-Planner maps relative suitability to help farmers and other land managers identify the most suitable places for different environmental management options via easy to use, interactive maps. It is free to use and covers the majority of agricultural land in Great Britain.

The tool uses environmental datasets to produce maps of the relative suitability of land for different environmental outcomes and maps relative suitability for four options:

  • Water resource protection (buffer strips and cover crops)

  • Woodland creation (planting of trees on-farm)

  • Sown winter bird food (wild bird seed margins)

  • Flower-rich pollinator habitats (flower margins and grassland restoration)

Suitability is based on topography, soils, nearby habitats, landscape features etc. Suitability is then presented as easy to explore ‘heat maps’ for a chosen area or farm, making it simple to compare the most suitable option for a given area.

The tool is intended to support farmer decisions by presenting complex environmental data in an easy to interpret way. But it cannot take the place of local knowledge and therefore does not suggest an ‘optimum’ solution. 

You can view the tool, even if you're in Australia, and there is a really useful workflow that will help you make your own environment assessment of your property.

The basic steps are listed below, or you can view some more tips that are relevant for farmers - no matter what country they're from.

1. Make an assessment and have a good think about what you want to do. Use precision agriculture data (e.g. yield maps) or your own knowledge to identify unproductive or difficult to farm areas

2. Compare suitability of different areas for a single option or vice versa

3. Sense check. Are the most suitable areas identified by the tool actually appropriate? There may be local factors not predicted by the tool (e.g. infrastructure, local soil conditions, pest or weed burdens etc)

4. Implement and monitor. Use best practice guidance and monitor success.

View the tool, and take a look at the user guide for some more tips on the environmental considerations to take into account (and data you need to collect) to better manage your land. 

This online tool is for UK producers but can be accessed globally for some helpful tips at assist-e-planner.ceh.ac.uk