Rise of the Robots

With the announcement of Case’s autonomous tractor this week it is clear that a future of driver-less machines are on their way. This isn’t really a total surprise as we have had GPS controlled tractors since the early 2000’s and it was only a matter of time before the driver was completely replaced and while this isn’t the first driver-less tractor concept to be announced it is the first time that a major tractor manufacturer has announced their own design. This is an area that has a growing interest with robots and drones making a strong appearance at the recent Cotton Conference and Ag-Quip. But while it seems clear that that in the future we will be using robotic tractors but the question is will be using large robotic tractors such as Case’s or many swarm bots like those from SwarmFarm and QUT’s Agbot?

The idea behind swarm bots is that their are many smaller robots working on the same farm or even the same paddock, they share information on the task and work to complete it in the most efficient way they can. The other great thing about the concept of swarm farming is that because the machinery is so small it causes very little compaction doing minimal damage to the soil. Compaction is already an issue facing many farmers and the issue is growing with the ever increasing size of the machinery. Compaction is a problem because the weight of the machines squash the soil making it hard and impenetrable for the roots of plants limiting their ability to access water and nutrients, the poor structure can also affect drainage leaving the soil susceptible to water logging. Currently compaction is being managed through the use of GPS controlled machines that travel along “tram tracks”. These “tram tracks” are the wheel tracks that are left by machine as it travels up and down the field limiting the compaction to that particular area of the field. However as this is a completely new technology it will require any producers that adopt the technology to change over all their equipment to these new machines. The other issue that may occur with using swarm bots is that as their is more machinery their is likely to be more maintenance.

Case’s new autonomous tractor and the autonomous tractors from other companies have the advantage of being able to use the farms already existing  machinery but do not address the compaction issue. Both the swarm bots and the autonomous tractors have the advantage of removing the need for a operator which will be a great advantage in a environment where it is constantly becoming more difficult to find operators. However what will happen when something goes wrong? How will it know when a bolt breaks? These machines will need to be covered in senors monitoring it for any sign of failure and will most likely need to be constantly monitored by someone.

Robotic tractors will soon be amongst us and I suspect that we will be seeing them in our fields before we see driver-less cars on the roads. My only questions is which way the industry go?

 

 

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“Jimmy’s GM Food Fight”

Anyone who is interested in the GM debate or would like more information I suggest watching “Jimmy’s GM Food Fight”. It takes a non bias scientific look at the Genetic Modification of crops, their use and societies view on them.

http://www.documentarytube.com/videos/jimmys-gm-food-fight

Weed Resistance

Weed Resistance 

I recently watched the Vice report “Saviour Seeds” on GMO cropping (On HBO Season 3 Episode 9), during the program they talked to some farmers from Paraguay on their experiences with growing Roundup Ready soy beans. Their main issue with the product was the issue of weeds resistance that they stated was caused by the excessive use of  glyphosate (The herbicide commonly referred to as Roundup). Personally I thought that the story was servilely one sided and heavily bias but even so weed resistance is unfortunately a real everyday issue for many farmers around the world including Australian farmers.

But are GMO crops to blame?.

In short the answer is NO, while in some countries it could be argued that the misuse of glyphosate in Roundup Ready crops has helped to increase the prevalence of weed resistance it is unfortunately a problem that affects many areas in Australia and around world including those that have never been touched by GM cropping. So what causes herbicide resistance?

Herbicide resistance occurs when a plant a natural mutation in the plant allows it to become immune to the mode of action (the bit that kills the weed) in a herbicide. If the the same herbicide is applied in further sprays this plant may then survive allowing it to set seed, leaving viable seed in the soil for up to 10 years. Resistant plants then germinate from the seeds and if a chemical with the same mode of action is used these plants will set seed and possibly spread. The situation can then be made worst if the producer changes to chemical with another mode of action using it religiously until the weed becomes resistant to it as well. The situation is now that bad in some parts of Western Australia that weeds are resistant to several modes of action almost eliminating chemical options.

In order to combat this issue the producers have had to adopt Integrated Weed Management (IWM) strategies in order to help manage and reduce the problem. Common features in many IWM strategies include rotating modes of action, the double knock strategy and non chemical control methods.

Rotating modes of action involves using different types of chemicals that will still kill the weeds but will use a different method in order to prevent a resistance occurring to one type of mode of action. The different mode of actions can be determined by checking the label to see its group.

The double knock strategy is similar to rotating modes of action and involves making at least two passes over a field. The first pass is down with a chemical using one mode of action before a second pass is done with another chemical that uses a different mode of action in order to knock out any weeds that may of been left by the first pass. This method is becoming increasingly popular when used in conjunction with WeedSeeker technology that identifies weeds in a paddock and only sprays them instead of doing a blanket spray over the entire paddock. This has caused a massive reduction in the amount of chemical used on farm and the operating cost allowing many more expensive chemicals from different groups to be a cost effective option.

Finally the last control method is the non-chemical mechanical control which can take many forms from the simple to the more elaborate. Strategic ploughing is one of mechanical options available as it is able to physically destroy the plant in the fallowed paddock working under the simple idea that no weed can develop resistance to steel. Other methods include trying to control the seed bank though using machinery like seed crushers that a pulled behind the harvester to windrowing stubble in a way that allows it to be burned destroying any seeds.

Overall weed resistance is a problem that effects the entire cropping industry and not some accidental by-product of a RoundUp ready cropping system, it is also a problem that can be managed, prevented and avoided through care full management. I’d like to finish this discussion on Weed Resistance by asking two questions on the Vice program.

1. VICE News​ claims that farmers could use a range of herbicides before the introduction of RoundUp Ready (RR) soy beans in order to prevent and control resistance. But before RR soy beans you couldn’t spray any herbicide in crop and could therefore only spray during fallow. So why aren’t they still rotating their herbicides during fallow to control and prevent resistant weeds along with weeds in general while using glyphosate to control weeds in crop as recomended?

2. If the Paraguay’s farmers are so unhappy with the product why do they still use it and not revert back to conventional seed? The program stated that the majority of Paraguay’s farmers used RR soy beans but not all farmers do meaning there are still conventional seeds on the market, so why not switch back?

On a side note…….

The show also commented on how the how the UN has recently found glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic” which in all fairness they have. But in this day and age everything seems to cause cancer so I thought I’d research things that are proven to cause cancer and are not just “probably carcinogenic”. According the American Cancer Institute there are many many things that can and will cause cancer however I have chosen to just list a few everyday materials that are Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans such as:

  • Alcohol (I know, I was disappointed as well)
  • Coal
  • Tar
  • Engine exhaust
  • Leather Dust
  • Mineral oils
  • Salted fish
  • The Sun (Solar/UV Radiation)
  • Soot
  • Wood Dust
  • Tobacco/Tobacco Smoke

 

Just to lighten things up here’s a song that a South Australian agronomist and farmer wrote about weed resistance and is called the Wild Radish Song.

Rise of City Farm?

I was recently at the National Youth Conference in Canberra on the agricultural work group, our role was to discuss and develop agricultural policy from the preceptive of Australia’s youth. The work group brought together individuals from a range of backgrounds who all a passion for agriculture and wanted to help feed the world into the future. Amongst the many topics that were discussed at the conference one of the ideas that came out of the conference was the concept of the city farm. This is not my idea and its not even a new idea but I believe it is a good one that hasn’t been looked at strongly enough and will have a great potential in feeding the looming world population of nine billion by 2050.

Firstly though I would like to clear up want my definition of a “city farm” is as the definition of what a city farm is was something that we had some trouble with. By my definition a city farm is commercial scale operation in an urban area that produces food hydroponics and aquaculture or a combination of the two. This differs from other definition that many other assumed, that definition being a network of community and roof top gardens. While I have no problem with these smaller community projects they are not a realistic method of feeding the world’s rapidly rising population.

The need for new and innovate ways to produce more food for the world using less land and inputs is becoming more apparent as issues like climate variability, mining and urban encroachment take their toll. We will need to produce more food with less land and less water in order feed the world, I also believe that we will need to be closer to our markets in the future as fuel prices continue to rise making cost effective transport more difficult. In order to achieve this I believe that we will need city farms that can produce large scale commercial crops.

Closed hydroponics have been shown to recycle over 95% of the water in the system (Practical Hydroponics and Greenhouses) as there is no evaporation and no leaching so the only water that is lost is the water used by the plants. It also uses 30-40% less fertiliser than regular cropping (Woolworths Article) as the nutrients are in a contained system and like the water only nutrients used by the plants are removed from the system. These systems would be much efficient in terms of water and nutrients allowing much more food to be produced from the same inputs.

I believe that aquaculture also has a role to play in the future of city farming as fish can be grown indoors in large tanks. While there is currently some concern about the sustainability of fish farming due the fish-meal comprising of mainly wild caught fish I believe that they could be fed on grubs and larvae that are cultured in waste products. The two systems may even be linked together into a system called “aquaponics”

Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics where the waste water from the fish tanks is filtered though the hydroponic system allowing the plants to feed on the waste from the fish. This closed system again works to save water and nutrients through limiting loss to the outside environment so all that is lost is what the plants and fish use.

I understand that in order to build and run one of these city farms the costs will be huge and there will be a massive need for labour. But there is already commercial  aquaculture and hydroponic farms so I know its possible and while I am unaware of any in Australia there is already farms overseas using aquaponic technology.

Will it be for me?

Probably not, I much prefer the open spaces of the country to the crowded concrete jungle and view from the tractor cab to the bumper to bumper grid lock. I believe that there will still be a place for conventional farming in the future but I also believe this is something that has the potential to feed the worlds ever growing population.

 

To read an article in “The Land” on city farms click here

And to read about the worlds largest vertical farm click here

Are these the farms of tomorrow?

 

Growing Up On A Farm

I recently drove past the farm that I grew up on near Griffith and it just reminded me of just how lucky my brothers and I were to grow up of farm. We were able to experience a range of things that you just don’t get to experience when you grow up in town or in the city. It also generates a wealth of unique experiences, memories and stories that couldn’t occur elsewhere like when we proudly showed a family friend our poddy calf “Clarabelle” who by that stage resided in the freezer (I’ll get to that later).

The freedom and ability to explore the farm is one of the great things about growing up on one, we were able to wander off (under supervision) and explore, learning about farming, the natural world and how the two interact. We could take the billy cart that dad  built us from a few bits of steel, some wheel barrow wheels, half a plastic drum for a seat and a bit of chord on the front axle to steer with. Then take it out to the gully behind the house, all three of us would jump one (one in the seat steering, one between the seat and frame and one on the back), give it a quick push start and be flying off down the hill only to reach the bottom and pull it back up the gully to start again. We’d catch yabbies in the channels that ran through the farm and around Griffith, have yabby races or cook some for lunch. The ability and freedom to do these things is something my city cousins could never enjoy living in Sydney and were always amazed by what we did when they came out to visit us.

All Three of Us

All Three of Us

We learned firsthand about the beauty and harsh reality of the natural world, from the blight of rabbits and the bitter dry of drought to the joy of rain and green growth it brought we saw it all. We saw and learned firsthand how the introduced rabbit excavated the landscape destroying pasture and how truly devastating it could be when it was coupled with drought. But also saw how quickly the dusty landscape could be transformed to a lush green with rain or how irrigation could bring life to the paddocks in the driest of seasons (when there was a water allocation). But by far the thing I cherish most from the farm was the memories.

Rain

Rain

The unique farm life gave us farm kids of great memories and stories that I have cherished since. Memories of us riding in the tractor with dad as he prepared the fields or how we would sit in the back of the parked ute and watch the Ag Plane sow the rice bays. The day first got on a horse, only to be thrown off over the front straight away and helping dad in the yards with the sheep. Then there was the two hour bus trip to school, we’d get up a six to make lunches before walking down the driveway to the mailbox, getting on the bus at seven and arriving at school in time to start class at nine. Occasionally when we’d get home from school (at 5pm) I would have to get on the motorbike and ride to wherever dad was on the tractor taking him his lunch.

Checking Things With Dad

Checking Things With Dad

But our most famous story would be that of our poddy calf “Clarabelle”. Carrabelle had been given to us by an old drover, bottle raised the young calf and it soon became the family pet. However like with all cattle the time soon came when it was time for the now heifer to go to the slaughter house but us kids bailed up saying it was the family pet and couldn’t go, so Carrabelle was saved for now. Then a few weeks later we returned from a New Years Eve party to find that Carrabelle had somehow let herself into and then back out of the house leaving cow dung in the hallway, urine by the TV and the PLASTIC Christmas Tree half eaten. The next day a meeting was held with a unanimous vote, Clarabelle was going and steak was for dinner, there was no forgiveness any of us kids as Clarabelle had gone too far.

The Infamous Carrabelle

The Infamous Carrabelle

Growing up on the farm is really what made me what I am today and I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I’d grown up as a ‘towny’ or in the dreaded city. Its where my passion for Agriculture, farming and flying came from, the things that have made me who I am.

 

Back Aain

Back Again

 

NZ Irrigation – Part 3

The bus continued to motor on through the passing showers to the other side of the Heretaunga Plain, by now the plains area was distinctly a wine region with grape vines as far as the eye could see in every direction. We were here to see Mike Glasbourgh’s (spelling may be wrong) property in particular his dam and his arrangement with “Constellation Wines”.

Mike’s property was right on the edge of the Heretaunga Plain and was made up of both the plains country and the hills that surrounded it. On his property he ran sheep and cattle as well having some cropping and the vineyards that we’ll talk about later, but the main attraction to the property was his dam.

The need for the dam arose from Mike starting to grow more high value crops and need for more water security that came with. My understanding of way NZ irrigation works (I may be wrong) is that you can irrigate from the river as needed without a total limit on how much water you can use, however if the water level in the river drops below a certain point a water ban is called and no one can irrigate from the river. Mike initially looked at sinking a few bores on his property but in the end he decided that a dam would be the way to go.

The large dam (complete with water ski jumps) was built in a shallow gully between the spurs of two different hills, with the dam wall extending about 100m from spur to spur. The dam is gravity fed (without the aid of pump) from the river via channel that runs for a few kilometres, from the river to the dam. While at the time of construction it would have been simple enough to just bring in the bulldozers and set about building the wall Mike decided it had to be done properly, with a geological survey being undertaken first to make sure the site would be stable enough for the dam and that the wall wouldn’t leak.

Mike talking to us about the dam

Mike talking to us about the dam (Notice the ski jumps in the background)

While in size it is somewhat smaller than the dams you would find around Moree it is more than capable of meeting their needs for protection against droughts and frost, with the biggest test so far being a six week water ban last year that only caused the dam to drop to only two thirds its normal level.

The dam has led to some exciting opportunities for Mike including a deal with Constellation Wines who have leased a large area of his property to grow the grapes for their wines. One of things that attracted Constellation Wines to Mike’s property was the water security that it offered due to the dam; the other main attraction was his close proximity to their winery.

As we left the property we were given a demonstration of its frost protection system, like the other farms that we had visited they used water (from the dam) to prevent frost damage and had sprinklers along the vines. Due to a recent harvest there were a few geysers in the field from where the grape harvester had knocked the sprinkler heads off, but for me this only just added to the demonstration showing the amount of pressure in the system.

After watching the demonstration we were off to our fourth and final property just down the road to look at their mixed cattle and cropping property. Hopefully I’ll be able to get the fourth and final part of the tour up a bit quicker than I got this part up.

NZ Irrigation – Part 1

Yes that’s right I’m out of the country and on the road travelling New Zealand, the weather has been damp but the rain and the drizzle of Napier didn’t stop me going on Irrigation tour of some local farms yesterday.

We boarded the bus by Napier’s board walk and headed out to the Heretaunga Plain just outside Napier, on the way out to the first farm our guide explained a bit about the region’s history and the area’s geology. The Heretaunga Plain has a wide range of soil types from old deep coarse gravel to some new (Couple of hundred year old) highly friable soil.

Our first farm had an Apple orchid and Kiwi Fruit plantation and was run by Mark Ericsson whose family had been farming their block of land for the four generations. When we got off the bus we were straight into the kiwi fruit, which were just about ready for harvest. The vines were set up in a way to increase growth and yield, with this year’s crop being on the lower lateral vines and the following years vines growing up to a stake above the main vine. So when this year’s crop is harvested the vines that the fruit grew on are removed, the new vines are brought down from above to where the old ones were and then the new shoots start to grow up to the steak. This method allowed for only a slight loss in production when he recently changed varieties, he simply grafted the new variety onto the vine and grew it up over the old variety, then when he harvested the current crop he brought them down and continued on as normal.

The vines holding the current crop grow laterally while next seasons vines grow up towards the steak.

The vines holding the current crop grow laterally while next seasons vines grow up towards the steak.

The Kiwi fruit were irrigated from sprinkler system that ran along the base of the vines using bore water, however if a frost was to occur the sprinklers could be moved to the top of the vines and turned on to stop the frost setting in and affecting the plants. (Emphasis on frost mitigation would quickly become a common theme on the tour.) Using “Hydro Services” he is able to measure the vines water usage and the soils moisture profile, helping to reduce the amount of water used in irrigation. Another technique he uses to prevent water losses is that after he has planted a new set of vines he will use a watering schedule that encourages deep root growth so the vines can access water from deep down in the soil profile.

The sprinklers at ground level

The sprinklers at ground level

Pipe reaching up to the canopy that the sprinklers can be placed in for frost protection

Pipe reaching up to the canopy that the sprinklers can be placed in for frost protection

Mark tries to run the property as close to organic as he can in order to minimise inputs and therefore reduce costs but would never go fully certified organic as it would limit his market access to the European market. In order to achieve this all the cut down vines are mulched and then brushed up against the vines to act as mulch that retains water. He is also very mind full of compaction in his fields as it can hinder the soil’s ability to take up and hold water. There are also peacocks that roam the vines mainly for aesthetic purposes but they are also used to help keep the grubs at bay.

Old vines cut off and painted over

Old vines cut off and painted over

As I mentioned earlier Mark said he would never go organic as it would limit his market access to Europe, however his main market for his Kiwi fruit are Japan and South Korea as they prefer yellower colour and high dry matter content of this variety.

While the Kiwi Fruit and apple orchid was interesting and we were soon back on the bus and onto the next farm, so watch this space over the coming days as I write more about the tour.

 

 

Old Vines cut off and painted over

Old Vines cut off and painted over

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The sprinklers at ground level

The sprinklers at ground level

Peacocks for aesthetics and grub control

Peacocks for aesthetics and grub control

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