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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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

 

Earth Moving

Since harvest finished we have been levelling out and restoring the slight slope to all the fields that had chickpeas in them, all the fields lose their level and slope over time from irrigation and other farm processes like ploughing. These particular fields were also flooded in the 2012 floods causing a large amount of silt to dumped in various spots over the field destroying the slope.

To restore the slope and level of the field the first step is to go over each field with the grader board to knock out the stubble, level the hills and flatten out all the little bumps and ditches. The grader board goes over each field twice at different angles going across the rows to get the best possible level on it.

The Grader Board in Action

The Grader Board in Action

After the grader board goes though the surveyor enters the field and takes survey heights every 50 metres in the field, these spot heights are then laid out on a map and the slope is worked out. For each height on the map the desired height and the difference is written out on the map to determine whether that height is lower (fill section) than the desired height or if the height is higher (cut section).

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Map of Field 9 with All The Spot Heights Marked

The data is then loaded into the laser, the laser is put in the middle of the field and sends a signal to the bucket that tells it to lift or lower the bucket depending on the height it needs to make that area of the field. When the bucket is full they dump it over a fill section to get it to the level that it needs to be at. After the field has been levelled by the laser bucket the grader board goes back over it to give it the final trim and join up sections that may have been levelled to different heights.

While this process sounds pretty quick and simple it took 8 days for the two laser buckets to do the one field in the picture above, for a video of the laser bucket action see below.

Back At It

Yes that’s right I’ve got two weeks break from uni so I’m back in Moree and back at work. Which means that today’s post is coming to you live from the tractor. Unfortunately because its live from the tractor there’s bound to be a few typos due the bumpy ride as I type it on my iPhone, so I’ll apologise in advance.

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It’s all go go go here at the moment we’ve got the cotton picker charging ahead in the field with the three tractors following up behind preparing the soil for the next crop.

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When the cotton is picked the cotton picker leaves the plant mostly in tack so the first machine to go through the field after the picker is the slasher-root cutter. This machine slashes the cotton plant above ground and cuts the roots below ground to stop it coming back in the following season. After the cotton has be slashed the ground needs to be prepared for the next crop.

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As this is a irrigation property we don’t use zero till in the irrigation blocks, instead we need to put hills in so the plants have a good seed bed and there are furrows for the water to flow down. To do this we run a plough through once and figs the furrows while building up the hills. However these hills still aren’t a great seed bed and need one final machine to finish it off.

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When the hills are formed the tops are narrow, uneven and filled with clods of earth. To fix this and make it suitable for planting a roller needs to be run over them which flattens out the tops and helps to break up the clods of firth leaving it ready for next season’s crop.

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Again I’d like to apologise for any typos as it is difficult to type while in the tractor. As always if you have any questions or want to leave a comment feel free to do so below and make sure you check out the latest Cotton Career this weeks is Ag Pilot.

Over And Out

Its been other great season working at Norwood in Moree, we finished the last irrigation on Monday which fitted in well with me finishing up on Friday  So between Monday and Friday it was a mixture of chipping, shed work while flying in the afternoon to build up hours for my licence.

We were chipping because it was a CSIRO plant trial for new varieties of cotton and was surrounded by conventional cotton so neither of them could be sprayed with round up. This means large weeds have been able to grow in the cotton which could damage the cotton picker and  the cotton samples.

The slasher and root cutter was in the shed to have all the blades replaced and the root cutting disks measures and adjusted so they would have the correct overlap allowing them to cut efficiently for the upcoming picking season. This was a slow process made even slower by getting the fork lift bogged, with the heavy rear end and the small tires it made it really easy for the fork lift to fall through the soil causing it to bottom out. A quick tow with the tractor and it was back to work.

Because of all of the rain in the past few weeks we hadn’t been able to do any slashing and the airstrip was becoming over grown along with other some spots. The old tractor had no radio, the only air con was a open door and it struggled to hold the three point linkage at hight but it got the job done and the airstrip cleared.

Now I’m about to start my next challenge; starting university hopefully it’ll go alright but I’ll still be going back to Moree from time to time so I can write about what they’re are doing. In the mean time I’ll be writing about farming issues or other aspects of farming, feel free to leave a comment or check out my other websites Farming Photo’s and Cotton Careers.

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Last Round

That’s it we’re done, irrigation is over for another year, so no more walking the rows, no more starting and pulling siphons and no more raking the trash racks, its also my last week for the season before I head off to start uni. But there’ll still be plenty to do in that week between chipping and preparing rigs for ground prep and getting ready to plant winter crops as well as the many other tasks, so we won’t won’t be letting up any time soon.

The last irrigation was finished in record time but it wasn’t with out mishap though, unfortunately we had we blow out on one of the channels two days into the irrigation but it fixed quickly with the loader. We also arrived one morning to find a pump choking on its own air filter, it was blowing smoke so thick that I thought the pump site was on fire when driving up the driveway, but again it was a quick fix with just a simple change of air filter needed.

The cotton is coming along pretty good with all the lower bolls opening up on the plants, the rest should be open very soon with picking predicted to start in about seven weeks. Defoliation will probably start in late February after the top bolls have opened up, defoliation is a process where a chemical is sprayed on the cotton to make the leaves fall off so contamination is reduced during picking. But when picking time comes I’ll explain all of this in more detail.

So that’s what I’ve been up to lately, thanks for reading if you have any questions or want to leave your thoughts please feel free to leave them in the comment section, check out our new page “The Lighter Side” and the new photos on “Farming Photo’s“.

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