Precision agriculture (PA) and variable rate technology (VRT) have long been used by the cropping industry to enhance productivity, while the livestock sector has often lagged behind in its uptake of these technologies.
However, a new report from 2016 Nuffield Scholar, Jack England, has identified a number of clear opportunities for the integration of these systems across livestock businesses with potential to improve both efficiency and environmental outcomes.
Jack manages his family’s 3200 hectare mixed sheep, beef and cropping property near Kingston South East in South Australia.
With a background in agronomy, he brought a scientific approach to his research, supported by Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), which took him to the United Kingdom, Israel, New Zealand and Australia to discuss the use of VRT with cropping and horticultural specialists, researchers and livestock producers. His goal was to establish an understanding of how PA and VRT could be extrapolated across the livestock industries.
Jack said his research was driven by his perplexity at livestock producers’ willingness to acknowledge the cropping sector has enjoyed enormous efficiency and productivity gains using PA and VRT, while simultaneously having a resistance to applying the same technology to pasture.
“PA and VRT have been applied in cropping and horticultural industries to maximise plant biomass and quality parameters for many years, but are not yet widespread across pasture and livestock systems,” Jack said.
“Both sectors abide by the same agronomic principles of soil, water, sunshine and inputs, yet the livestock management sector deem the current level of progress acceptable.
“I believe livestock farmers must, like the cropping fraternity, make better use of our finite resources by applying VRT to suit various agronomic growing conditions found within a field.”
“Society is also quite rightly demanding strong agricultural nutrient run-off restrictions, and this fits with the social expectations that we create more efficient, yet profitable livestock farming systems by making better use of most macro fertiliser nutrients, water and arable land.”
Reducing cost of production was also a key driver of Jack’s research as Australian agriculture strives towards maintaining global competiveness and securing the long-term prosperity of the industry.
“Australian famers continue to receive the lowest levels of government subsidies worldwide as a proportion of gross domestic product and government expenditure on agriculture is some of the lowest in the developed world,” Jack said.
“Coupled with relatively stable commodity prices, the highest minimum wage in the world and enormous freight costs, this has created a highly competitive industry forced to develop efficiencies to lower costs of production.
“Because the terms of trade are unlikely to improve, further efficiencies within livestock industries must be made to remain competitive.”
Jack’s research, which also included discussions with livestock producers across the globe pertaining to their willingness to implement PA and VRT, led to a suite of recommendations based on soil science, plant monitoring and better understanding the relationship between animal behavior and nutrient removal.
These include the adoption of farm management software, use of spatial tools such as yield and topographical maps to identify variations in paddocks and biomass, fertiliser application based on zoning, objective measurement of treatment responses and continued monitoring of application sites.
Jack also recommended external assistance be sought by producer’s whose knowledge of PA or VRT is limited and a ‘nursery’ or staged approach to integrating this management framework by starting with a small number of targeted paddocks.
“Development of zone-based variable rate fertiliser applications, driven by an understanding of how all soil, animal and plant spatial datasets interrelate, could soon unleash substantial improvements in the livestock sector’s productivity,” he said.
“These systems will also enhance growers’ ability to analyse enterprise and management differences.
“While presently a daunting task, development of spatial tools incorporated into easy-to-use commercial decision support applications will most certainly allow farmers to make better fertiliser investment decisions and grow more pasture more efficiently in the future.”
Source: Nuffield Australia