The implications of big data for Australian farmers

The development of farming machinery and technology that utilises global positioning system (GPS) information – combined with other objective data and digitised imagery to generate objective information about the status of soil, water, crops and pasture – are quickly changing the ways that farm businesses can be managed in Australia. The implications of these developments are the subject of research being conducted by the Australian Farm Institute, in conjunction with the Cotton Research and Development Corporation, Dairy Australia, and GrainGrowers Limited.

The initial development of digital farming involved the use of GPS-enabled machinery to implement systems such as controlled-traffic farming by crop producers. Subsequent developments included the use of GPS and enhanced harvester monitoring technology to produce digital crop yield maps.

More recently, the development of variable-rate planting and fertiliser broadcasting equipment has enabled some crop farmers to increase yields and reduce crop inputs by using variable application rates across a paddock. The latest developments in this area include harvesting equipment that is constantly connected to the internet and which can relay crop yield and machinery performance information in real-time via the internet, and variable rate planting technology that can modify planting ‘recipes’ and fertiliser application rates on a sub-paddock basis. Related developments include the utilisation of unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites to monitor crop or pasture performance remotely, and which have also been used to monitor flowering and fruiting in orchards and vineyards.

While much of the development that has occurred involves applications utilised for crop or plant production, digital technology is also increasingly used in the livestock industries. Applications include electronic livestock identification systems, and the use of these in conjunction with satellite monitoring and robotic meat processing systems to more efficiently manage livestock and to provide much more precise feedback information for individual animals. Data about the performance of animals from specific herds or flocks, and the genetic potential of specific breeds or bloodstock lines is also now being collected, and can potentially be distributed widely.

The most recent international developments in digital agriculture involve the utilisation of data derived from a large number of individual farms in centrally-managed ‘expert systems’ which are used to prescribe very specific crop planting and management programs on a field-by-field basis. Historical weather, soil and previous years’ production data are used in combination with information about the performance of particular crop varieties to formulate the optimum crop planting strategy at fine detail within a single field, and this information is then utilised in conjunction with digitally-enabled machinery to plant a crop based on that prescription. The crop is then monitored throughout its growth and the expert system can be used to make decisions about fertiliser or pesticide applications. Finally, data obtained from harvest equipment is fed back into the system to ‘close the loop’ and enable further enhancements to performance in subsequent years.

While still at a development stage, the implementation of robotic technology in the dairy and meat processing sectors is also creating the potential to develop similar closed-loop systems, whereby genomics, on-farm production data and milk and carcase data can all be integrated into a single system and used to identify opportunities to enhance productivity or to focus production on specialised market opportunities.

These developments provide the potential for individual farmers to achieve substantial productivity improvements. However, the development of digital agriculture also raises a number of issues in relation to the ownership of data; the rights that farmers hold over data obtained from their farm; the extent to which data held by machinery, farm input suppliers and processors can be sold or transferred to third parties; the uses to which data from individual farms can be put; and even the legal status of that data in the event of litigation or a demand by a government authority to obtain access to that data.

The aim of this project is to gain a clear understanding of the potential for digital agriculture to enhance productivity growth in Australian agriculture, and to detail some of the legal and other implications of this development. The project also aims to assist the agriculture sector in developing a collaborative framework that clarifies all the associated legal and other implications under Australian law of the development of digital agriculture, and works towards achieving common agreement about issues that may impede the widespread adoption of these technologies in Australia in the future.

Images:  CAFNR

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