Physicists help deliver precision to paddocks

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University of New England physicist David Lamb says precision agriculture is transforming the industry. Credit: Simon Scott

A farm in Australia is the testing ground for sophisticated sensors and tracking systems that boost crop and livestock productivity with precision. These gadgets – controlled from a smartphone – could revolutionise farm management around the world.

At the University of New England’s 2,900-hectare Sustainable Manageable Accessible Rural Technologies Farm, or “SMART Farm”, high-tech sensors track soil moisture at hundreds of locations, plane-mounted infrared cameras measure the health of crops and radio transmitters in livestock ear tags track and monitor sheep.

All sensors and trackers connect wirelessly to researchers’ tablets and smartphones.

These “smart farm” practices are at the vanguard of “precision agriculture” – a type of farming that involves measuring differences in crop productivity within a region and using that information to make improvements. And the SMART Farm – a demonstration site for new technologies that improve productivity and environmental sustainability – is yielding handsome results.

Analysing data from moisture probes in cotton plots, for instance, has allowed researchers to customise irrigation and double cotton production per megalitre of water. And colour-infrared crop-sensing devices, which allow resources to be focused only where they’re needed, have led to a 40% reduction in fertiliser input.

In the past six months, UNE researchers also have come up with a new tool for farmers. They’ve produced the world’s first livestock yield maps, which show precisely which grazing areas lead to the biggest weight gains in sheep. These maps could help farmers improve grazing efficiency in open paddocks, which is now only about 30%.

UNE physicist David Lamb, who leads the SMART Farm project says the farm’s aim is not only to improve current agricultural practices, but also to “capture the imagination of the outside world and the farmers of the future”.

There is high demand in the agriculture industry for experts in everything from sensors and robotics to maths and chemistry, as well as the traditional agriculture and environmental science disciplines.

Multi-disciplinary schools like UNE’s School of Science and Technology are the key to providing the crucial mix of pure and applied sciences that farmers and agricultural researchers need in the 21st century, Lamb says.

this farm is designed to capture the imagination of the world and the farmers of the future.

Lamb’s own path to precision agriculture began with a stroke of good luck. Arriving at the rural Australian university for a lectureship in the mid‑1990s, as the agricultural sector was on the cusp of a technology revolution, he was “in the right place at the right time”, he says. “Precision agriculture” had just been born, thanks to the global positioning system (GPS) that the US military had recently released for civilian use.

And Lamb, who had stomped around farms as a kid, was hooked.

“Everything just switched on around the same time,” he recalls. Lamb’s team was modifying GPS devices and attaching them to grain harvesters next to weight monitors and calculating variations in crop yields.

Lamb soon realised that with all the technological advances in the industry, the need for physics-trained researchers in agriculture was critical.

The SMART Farm is a way to show people what a career in agriculture in the 21st century can look like.

The project has attracted attention within and outside of Australia, garnering significant funding from industry partners in Australia and inspiring other researchers around the world to follow its lead.

The team’s collaborators at the University of New Mexico, for instance, are using similar livestock tracking technology for rangeland management in the American Southwest.

“Farming of the future is about sustainable intensification – we have the tools now where we can monitor, manage and manipulate the way we do things to get the best out of the soil as well as our limited water and nutrients,” Lamb says.

But more physicists are needed. Forget supercolliders – agriculture can be just as fun and challenging.

“I’m doing more physics than I’ve ever done,” Lamb says. “I’m outdoors in the paddock – and I’m having heaps of fun doing it.”

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