Predictive technology signals farming revolution

May 26, 2014 -- Farmers in Queensland’s peanut capital of Kingaroy are at the front line of a precision agriculture program which could revolutionise the Australian farming industry.

Cutting-edge technology from mapping giant Esri Australia is at the heart of the program, which enables farmers to accurately forecast harvest yields and predict crop disease outbreaks.

By utilising Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, farmers can access interactive maps that incorporate satellite imagery and other real-time data such as soil, irrigation, pest and nutrient conditions.

From this data, growers can analyse the health and maturity of their crops; develop and shift farming strategies; and submit detailed reports to industry stakeholders from anywhere on the farm.

Dr Andrew Robson – who developed the project in partnership with the Peanut Company of Australia (PCA) - said GIS technology provides an excellent framework for storing, displaying and analysing yearly crop variations identified from satellite imagery.

 “At this stage the most important use of the technology for peanut growers and industry stakeholders is yield prediction,” Dr Robson said.

“We create GIS maps which display yield variability layers derived from satellite imagery using specific algorithms, along with additional spatial information that together have enabled accurate yield predictions at the regional, farm and crop level to be produced.

“Knowing halfway through a season what to expect at harvest time is a powerful advantage.

“Peanut farmers and industry stakeholders can then budget, plan their storage and handling requirements, and develop appropriate marketing strategies depending on the expected crop size.”

Queensland produces over 95 per cent of Australia’s peanut crop with the main growing areas in the Burnett region, Bundaberg, Central Queensland and Atherton Tableland.

Dr Robson said the ground-breaking technology has a wide range of other potential uses in the industry, including the ability to determine the maturity of underground peanut pods which, until now, has been very difficult.

Esri Australia Managing Director Brett Bundock said similar GIS applications are currently being developed across a range of Australia’s other major agricultural industries, including sugar cane, avocados and cotton.

“For example, avocado growers could map each tree to monitor quality and yield capability and from this generate data which would show disease ratings for trees across an entire plantation,” Mr Bundock said.

“By analysing seasonal and change detection images, farmers can identify which regions contain disease-related canopy loss and focus treatments to prevent further spread.

“These layered images effectively become ‘harvest maps’, enabling the grower to form a management regime which maximises yield and quality while minimising prolonged disease exposure.”

Mr Bundock said the information could help Australia’s entire agribusiness industry make more informed economic assessments on the best timing and pricing for export – giving the country a huge competitive advantage.

“This farming expertise and technology can also be exported, so Australia’s agribusiness sector is likely to not only become increasingly effective to the local economy as a primary producer but also a service provider to overseas markets,” Mr Bundock said.

PCA Breeding and Innovation Manager Dr Graeme Wright said the delivery of the project meant farmers no longer had to be GIS experts or have expensive software to use the Cloud-based technology.

“GIS technology is now however at a stage where anyone can access it,  understand it, and apply it.” Dr Wright said.

“And, as the use of this technology grows, it is going to revolutionise the paddock-to-plate concept – by allowing us to trace produce right back to an individual supplier.

“That is a really big deal particularly in the high-end markets like Japan and Korea.

“This is a technology which will make Australian farmers more competitive – I believe we’ve only just scratched the surface in its potential applications.”

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