From reengineered soil to mustering drones: What’s on the innovation wish list for Western Australia’s complex agrifood challenges - evokeAG.

Use of cookies

The evokeAG. website uses cookies to enhance your experience and optimise site functionality.

Please refer to our Cookie Policy for more information on which cookies we use and how we collect and use your personal information through cookies

Skip to Content Skip to Navigation

From reengineered soil to mustering drones: What’s on the innovation wish list for Western Australia’s complex agrifood challenges

With so much capacity, creativity, and conviction in Australia’s agritech ecosystem, our primary industries are turning to forums like AgriFutures evokeAG. to connect problems with problem solvers. Here, Western Australia’s (WA) Primary Industries Development Chief Scientist, Dr Ben Biddulph, asks WA’s broadacre, pastoral, and horticulture sectors to outline the big challenges impacting their industry – and their wish list for the next generation of agritech innovations.

Dr Gaus Azam speaks on stage at evokeAG 2024 in front of other panellists. Dr Gaus Azam, Principal Soil Scientist, DPIRD.

In Australia – as in all agricultural nations – the success of agricultural activity depends on climate, soil, water, and proximity to markets. By all variables, Western Australia (WA) is an unlikely success story. But against the odds, producers’ triumph, accounting for 20% of Australia’s agricultural, fisheries, and forestry exports. 

The screws are tightening, though, as temperature records tumble; rainfall and groundwater stores decline; and the health of already variable, nutrient-deficient ancient soils diminishes.     

“WA is facing production challenges as a result of climate change,” said Dr Ben Biddulph, Primary Industries Development Chief Scientist at WA’s Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD).  

“Rainfall in the southwest of the state has been declining since the mid 1970s. And if we look to 2045 projections, this decline is projected to continue, specifically winter rainfall. 

“Spring temperatures are getting a lot hotter. And after record high temperatures in parts of the state this summer, everyone is nervous about what projected temperatures are going to mean,” added Dr Biddulph. 

“WA is also one of the most urbanised places on Earth, making connectivity and service delivery a challenge for farmers.” 

But no one knows the challenges of farming better than those on the ground. So, what does WA’s broadacre, pastoral, and horticultural industry need? And where can innovation partners step in?  

Reengineering more productive soils for broadacre farmers

Top of the list for broadacre farmers is soil quality.  

“We have around 12 million hectares of broadacre farming in WA, but over 50% of that has very acidic subsoil,” explained Dr Gaus Azam, Principal Soil Scientist at DPIRD.  

“And growers are all familiar with variability: some parts of a paddock will yield one tonne of grain per year, but move a few metres, and it might yield three.” 

 Ty Fulwood

Ty Fulwood, owner of cropping operation, Mt Noddy Farming.

A $22 million collaboration between DPIRD and the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) has uncovered a fix – and industry’s wish is for innovation partners to come on board to take the research from trial to adoption.  

It’s a compelling opportunity. At 11 trial sites spanning WA’s wheatbelt, soil reengineering completely removed soil water repellence, acidity, compaction, sodicity, and aluminium and boron toxicities. Nutrient availability and uptake improved almost immediately, and water use efficiency almost doubled.  

The result is a two- to four-fold increase in crop yields.

“Canola in our trial sites yielded up to an extra 2.2 tonnes per hectare,” explained Gaus.

“Barley yielded 6.3 tonnes per hectare, compared to 3.6 tonnes in control paddocks.” 

Researchers used a 30t excavator to reengineer soil to a depth of 80 centimetres, something which is completely impractical for producers to adopt. But Gaus is hoping a machinery partner will come on board to develop a purpose-built solution that makes soil reengineering accessible to every broadacre farmer. 

Grain grower, Ty Fulwood, is convinced, having enjoyed a 40% increase yield across his trial sites with no additional management changes. The owner of 5,600 hectare cropping operation, Mt Noddy Farming,Ty has tried countless interventions for his variable soils. But soil reengineering is the circuit breaker he’s been looking for. 

Dr Joanne Wisdom

Dr Joanne Wisdom, Innovation Manager at Grower Group Alliance, and co-owner of Plantagenet Wines. Image |

“The low hanging fruit of soil amelioration has been picked off with deep ripping, one-way disc (or ‘Plozza’ ploughs) and spading. But Gaus’ research has shown that when we affect the soil to a greater depth, in the right area, then there’s huge potential to grow more food, and increase revenues and profits.” 

“And we probably only need do it every 10-15 years,” added Ty.

Helping horticulturalists manage soil variability when reengineering isn’t an option

Soil variability presents challenges for making management decisions such as measuring fruit yield and quality and targeting inputs such as fertiliser and irrigation.   

Dr Joanne Wisdom, Innovation Manager at Grower Group Alliance, and co-owner of Plantagenet Wines, explained, “Soils across WA’s premium vineyards are shockingly variable, meaning there’s a difference in plant growth which impacts fruit quality and size.” 

Such variability obscures yield forecasting and harvest logistics; market planning; water allocation; and critical decisions around when to pick.  

“If you pick too early, you miss those developed flavour characteristics we’re famous for. Too late, and you get really alcoholic wines that cover up those flavours,” said Joanne. 

Mapping programs help visualise yield and characteristics like elevation, distribution through the vineyard, and leaf layer as a predictor of future yield. But their use isn’t widespread, and Joanne thinks there’s an opportunity for agritech companies to step in. 

“Growers want things to be ‘plug and play.’ I don’t have the resources or time it takes to invest in making this data meaningful to my system. I need simple tools to do that for me.”  

Helping pastoralists bring cattle and country closer

Annabelle Coppin, pastoralist and Founder of Outback Beef, said her challenges are also dirt related; specifically, the logistical complexities of running a livestock operation that spans 250,000-hectares of it.  

Yarrie Station in WA’s East Pilbara region is so remote that satellite imagery hasn’t been calibrated yet. Management at that scale naturally means less frequent ability to directly connect with cattle and country – so the Yarrie wish is for solutions that close that gap.  

Supplying the domestic market through her branded product, Outback Beef, as well as the feedlot and live export industries, Annabelle is purpose-driven to nurture her country and improve its resilience, all while remaining profitable.  

Annabelle and her husband and two children in a paddock.

Annabelle Coppin pictured with her family in 2020. Image | Hats by Felicity.

She knows time is of the essence.

“I’ve probably got 20 more mustering seasons – 20 more hot Pilbara summers – to get it right. So how can technology and innovation help me to speed up?” 

Her wish list for WA’s extensive pastoral industry? 

  • Remote monitoring of cattle in real-time. 
  • Virtual fencing. 
  • Unmanned drones to deliver goods around the station. 
  • Manned drones that help with controlled burning or mustering. 
  • Remote pasture monitoring that tells us the species, nutritional quality, and even methane impacts of what cattle are browsing on, because we know native tannins can reduce emissions. 
  • Tangible ways to demonstrate animal welfare outcomes bespoke to our property. 
  • Effective pain relief. 
  • And a single-shot chemical spay for females.

High appetite – and capacity – for investment in innovation

The WA agritech market is an attractive prospect for innovators with the right solutions. Ty explained, “The value of land in WA has increased so significantly that any producer looking at investment really has to work out where they’re going to get the best payoff. And it often isn’t in buying more land.”  

He also pointed to rationalisation in the grains industry over the last few decades, saying, “The calibre of individuals and farm operations has improved, so people are looking at reinvesting.” 

Dr Gaus Azam, Principal Soil Scientist, DPIRD; Dr Joanne Wisdom, Innovation Manager at Grower Group Alliance, and co-owner of Plantagenet Wines; Annabelle Coppin, pastoralist and Founder of Outback Beef; and Ty Fulwood, Grain grower were part of a panel discussion facilitated by Western Australia’s (WA) Chief Primary Industries Scientist, Dr Ben Biddulph at evokeAG. 2024 on 20-21 February.  

Tickets are now on sale for evokeAG. 2025 to be held on 18-19 February 2025 in Brisbane, Queensland. Following a sell-out event in 2024 we are encouraging delegates to secure their tickets, flights and accommodation early.

We look forward to seeing you in Brisbane for evokeAG. 2025. In the meantime, catch up on the other conversations about sustainability, climate resilience and the role of agtech in meeting those challenges from here.

Read more news
Read more news