A digital Ag service is not just about robots

As featured in NSW DPI Dairy Automatic Milking Systems Newsletter – Issue 10, May 2018

Article by Brooke Sauer, McGregor Gourlay Digital Ag Manager

Brooke Sauer with a drone

Digital Ag is almost like a different language for most farmers. Each year there seems to be something new and hot in the Ag Tech space and this year is no different. Precision Ag or the use of spatial data to improve decision making is still our number one priority. Tougher seasons and uncertainty about the future seem to be the greatest drivers for most farmers to look toward technology as the future of farming.

As a Digital Ag Manager, it is my role to look for opportunities within the existing farming system. There are no perfect (technology) products that suit every farmer and their current system. So our approach is more of a customisable solution rather than a package that the farmer pays a specific price for without knowing what the return on that investment will be.

Conducive to seeking opportunities within existing farming systems is the integration of technology into the current farming system. Most technology falls broadly into three categories:

  1. Technology that replaces labour (Robotics, mechanisation, machine learning & AI)
  2. Technology that measures things (sensors, remote sensing)
  3. Technology that brings data together (Internet of Things, software platforms that use IoT or blockchain etc.)

Not every farm will get a return on investment when purchasing a robot, or a suite of connected sensors, or a subscription to a satellite imagery service or even a digital data platform. I am continuously grounded by the notion that there is a lot of technology looking for a problem to solve. I see my greatest role working in this space is to temporarily ignore the push of technology and help farmers identify what is currently limiting their productivity. Then decide which technology available will accurately measure the current production and/or variability and provide an appropriate management or agronomic solution that will improve the triple bottom line for now and the consumer-driven future.

Many people are very excited about drones and their potential on farm. As a drone pilot, drone user and supplier of DJI drones to farmers, I have the experience to understand their limitations. I am constantly asked by farmers to find ways to utilise drones for many tasks that are already being done farm, from spraying weeds, “map” biomass, create digital elevation models to broadcasting seed. In many instances, drones are just not the right platform to collect any kind of “remote sensing data”. Whilst fun to fly, in most instances drones are grossly inefficient and I can attest that the novelty of flying a drone does wear off. Where more efficient data collection models exist, make the most of them and save the drone flying for getting a great overall feel on what is happening on farm. An aerial view of the farm can reveal a lot of information and for many of my customers started a new farm transformation journey in a direction they were not even aware existed.