Turning data into better decision-making
There’s a wealth of innovative technology at a farmer’s fingertips, and plenty more on the way. But how do farmers make sense of all the data available generated from this technology and choose the right tools to run their businesses? What is holding farmers back from taking up this new technology and what does industry or government need to do to assist?
These were among the questions addressed by four leading producers in a panel discussion, brought to you by Australia’s 15 Rural Research and Development Corporations, at evokeAG. 2023 in Adelaide.
Chief Executive Officer of Riverine Plains Inc, Catherine Marriott OAM, led the discussion by recognising the practical experience of the panel members in keeping with the ‘Down to Earth’ theme of evokeAG. 2023.
“There’s lots of new technology being developed, but unless you bring farmers along with you, it is not grounded in something that is going to have impact,” said Catherine.
“One of most frequent questions I am asked by our 450 members of Riverine Plains is what do they do with the data they collect and how do they turn that data into decision making tools?”
It’s something Vineyard Manager with Penley Estate in the Coonawarra region of South Australia, Hans Loder, investigated as part of his 2021 Nuffield Scholarship. He’s been looking into data management in vineyards and how to integrate it to become more efficient.
He said the best piece of advice is to do a data audit on-farm, creating a “data map” to understand what’s being collected, the data that helps make better decisions, and point to the right technology to assist those decisions.
“Throughout my Nuffield journey, farmers often told me, when I visited their properties that ‘we don’t collect much data here’,” said Hans.
“In fact, there was quite a lot of data being collected. So firstly, it’s important to understand the data points that are being collected, to set you up for the next decision, and that is which data points you need to help make better decisions.
“This data map will point you in the right direction to finding the right agtech that best fits your requirements.”
North Queensland cattleman and a 2022 Nuffield Scholar, Luke Chaplain, founded SkyKelpie, a startup that aims to be the first company in the world to commercialise livestock mustering with drones.
“Before joining this panel, I asked myself ‘what do I know about data?’ before realising I am surrounded by data,” said Luke.
The first data Luke started to work with was statistics on helicopter and gyrocopter deaths while mustering livestock, as well as the rising costs.
“I am also looking into all the different uses for drones on-farm, to show the economic, social and sustainability benefits that this technology offers,” Luke said.
Choosing the right data
So how can farmers choose what data they need to run their businesses?
Co-founder of Bitwise Agronomy and farmer from Jinglers Creek Vineyard in Tasmania, Fiona Turner, recommends starting with the problem they want to solve and the data needed to solve it, in effect working backwards.
She began her search for better data by wanting to understand and capture information about the phenological stage and the number of fruit on her grape vines.
“We found that we couldn’t count anything over 100 bunches reliably, so we set about teaching artificial intelligence to count the fruit that was actually in the vineyard,” said Fiona.
“This meant we could reduce variability, improve our forecasting, know what was heading to the market, and place our staff where they needed to be.”
In 2017, Brad Egan, went home to his family farm at Scaddan, north of Esperance, Western Australia, after finishing an agribusiness degree at Curtin University.
Recently named Australia’s Young Innovative Farmer of the Year, Brad is using data wherever possible on his family’s 3,400 hectare cropping operation.
Like Fiona, Brad believes that by defining your end goal, you are able to reverse engineer to understand the types of technology that will be fit for purpose.
“In broadacre cropping, there’s lots of data being collected, but I want to utilise it to make the best decisions going forward,” said Brad.
“This means doing the numbers, looking at farmland that is unproductive, running on-farm trials to compare potential solutions, and working out the return on investment to understand the financial implications of those solutions.
“Over the last 10 years, our average rainfall has dropped by 15 per cent, but with precision ag and better data analysis, we have been able to increase our wheat yields by 40 per cent.
“It’s been a bit of journey, but I am trying to improve our efficiency and sustainability in a climate challenged world.”
Utilising the data and removing the barriers
Panellists agreed that making better use of their data would allow them to work smarter, not harder.
Hans said better tools for data collection would enable him to work more as a viticulturist rather than doing bunch counts and crop estimates.
Fiona believes it means empowering skilled farm workers, working more efficiently and doing the job better.
“As farmers, we need to take the time to understand the technology and how we can make it work for us,” said Fiona.
“There are no silver bullets, so we also need to take the time to work with the agtech companies for our benefit.”
Removing the barriers to adopting new technology is partly generational and partly about education, support and training, according to Luke.
“If new technology isn’t simple and user friendly, it just becomes overwhelming,” said Luke. “Training and support are what farmers are looking for when adopting new tech.”
Hans believes farmers don’t always understand what’s possible. This means bringing farmers and agtech professionals together and asking the right questions.
“We need to challenge the technology to ensure it answers our needs,” he said.
Avoid the digital distraction and learn more about the discussion at evokeAG.. Watch the panel session here, check out the innovative startups and find out how agtech is tackling on-farm challenges on evokeag.com.
This panel discussion was brought to you at evokeAG. 2023 by Australia’s 15 Rural Research and Development Corporations. Thank you to Australian Eggs, Australian Meat Processor Corporation, Australian Pork, Australian Wool Innovation Limited, Cotton Research and Development Corporation, Dairy Australia, Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, Forest & Wood Products Australia, Grains Research and Development Corporation, Hort Innovation, LiveCorp, Meat and Livestock Australia, Sugar Research Australia, Wine Australia and AgriFutures Australia.