Tech fuels growth in Queensland agriculture

November is Queensland Agtech Month, designed to showcase the growing community of innovators working in Queensland agriculture and encourage overseas investors. We interviewed three different people involved in agtech in Queensland to get the perspective of where agtech is at and what it means for farmers.

Kym Hellmuth, beef producer

Kym Hellmuth runs a 650ha beef enterprise 15km north of Emerald. They also have a full-time business in town and relied on a caretaker to look after the property. When the caretaker left, Kym and her husband Tony found themselves spending a lot of time after hours monitoring water, checking stock and other time consuming activities. It was clear that the situation wasn’t sustainable, so they decided to investigate potential solutions. They were aware of sensors and other emerging ag technology, so they looked into what was available.

They completed a design plan and decided to install tank level sensors, water flow sensors, and an on-farm weather station from PLF Australia.

PLF’s non-proprietary network of sensors and actuators use LoRaWAN infrastructure to provide measures of water flow (volume and rate), water level, soil moisture and temperature over multiple layers, and an on-farm weather station, on a single integrated online platform.

Initially Kym says they installed ultrasonic sensors, however they experienced issues with condensation, frogs, and even a lack of space between the water level and the roof of their concrete tanks. They have now switched to hydrostatic sensors which sit below the water level and are working much more effectively.

They are now turning their attention to agtech for their animals. They are already fitted with RFID ear tags, which will allow them to install technologies such as walk-over weighing and other forms of on-farm monitoring in the near future.

“This technology allows us to be efficient in our use of time,” Kym says. “We don’t have to be on the ground all the time and when we are there, we are doing the things we need to be doing. It’s given us the lifestyle we want, without the additional labour.”

Kym Hellmuth runs a beef enterprise north of Emerald.

James Walker, Agrihive

James Walker has had a front-row seat for the growth of the agtech sector in Queensland over the past decade. James is the Managing Director of Agrihive. He established Agrihive to enhance the financial literacy of farmers and producers, help them make better decisions and communicate these decisions to their stakeholders. Stakeholders can be anyone from family members to business partners, accountants, bank managers or even government.

“In the year leading up to the drought, we saw a lot of people were making knee-jerk reactions to markets and things like that,” James says. “We're trying to improve visibility over business operations, so producers are making time-relevant, informed decisions.”

“We've got a great base model called Farmecco, but we’re doing a capital raise which is almost closed, to build a whole suite across agriculture.”

James sees the need to manage farm business around climate variability as one of the main drivers of the heightened tempo of agtech coming on to the market, while the growing global population is also creating a huge incentive for farmers to improve efficiencies.

“Agtech is just flooding agriculture at the moment. So for people who were hesitant about the technology, that barrier is really being broken now because there are so many exciting people and exciting solutions coming into agriculture, especially in Queensland.”

While he acknowledges that there are connectivity and data issues, he says these are fast being addressed.

“There will never be a situation where everyone's got perfect data and perfect speed, because that's always getting better and faster. So, even if a person doesn't have it, people are designing technology for them.”

James Walker is the Managing Director of agtech company, Agrihive. (Photo: Queensland Government, https://getonlineqld.initiatives.qld.gov.au/JamesWalker1)

Paul Stewart, Queensland's Department of Agriculture and Fisheries

Paul Stewart is an Agricultural Systems Mechatronic Engineer at Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. Paul works with a group of researchers in the field of agtech in intensive livestock systems. He believes the explosion in agtech in recent years is due to the way that relatively small investments in technology can produce large results and have big impact on farm.

“The economics is one of the first things that I get asked,” Paul says. “Cost is an issue when we're introducing a technology, but once it has proven its worth and the return on investment is good, farmers are generally willing to invest. They appreciate it when something improves decision making, saves labour, automates tasks or makes them more money.”

However Paul says it’s important that farmers and producers do not just adopt technology for technology's sake. It needs to improve the way you make decisions and do business, in a cost-effective way. It also needs to be reliable.

“You can develop something that works in the lab, but when you take that out onto a farm, it has to be robust,” he says. “It's got to work every time, and if it does happen to break down, it has to be easy to fix.”

He acknowledges there are some technology companies that don't have an ag background, or know the kind of environment that the tech will be operating in.

“That’s where our department plays a role – we are trying to link companies that may not have an ag background with the on-the-ground experience of what farmers know works and doesn’t work.”

Queensland’s $18.5 billion ag industry will be strengthened by the opening of an Advance Queensland Agtech and Logistics Hub. While tenders for the project only closed in August, ultimately the $3.3 million hub will serve as a space to build and test technologies, and support the development of agtech within Queensland.

Paul Stewart is an Agricultural Systems Mechatronic Engineer at Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.