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‘Hands-free’ farm will be a landscape laboratory

Sheep Central, June 11, 2021

From left, Food Agility chief scientist Professor David Lamb, Food Agility CEO Richard Norton, Charles Sturt University interim vice-chancellor Professor John Germov, and Charles Sturt University chief operating officer Rick Willmott.

AUSTRALIA’S first automated ‘hands-free’ commercial farm in New South Wales will be a landscape laboratory to prove and promote the uptake of new precision and sustainable agriculture technology.

Charles Sturt University and the Food Agility Co-operative Research Centre are joining forces to build the Global Digital Farm to demonstrate the future of farming through robotics, artificial intelligence and precision agriculture technology.

The project will be located on the university’s AgriPark 1900-hectare farm at the university’s Wagga Wagga campus, which already operates as a commercial farm producing broadacre crops (wheat, canola, barley), beef cattle, sheep and wine.

The farm currently runs 2500 composite ewes, 500 Angus breeders as part of the Angus Australia comparative herd program and about 1000 hectares is cropped annually.

The data, telecommunication and other digital infrastructure for the Global Digital Farm will be developed and built over the next three years.

The GDF will be spearheaded by Food Agility chief scientist Professor David Lamb, an early pioneer and leading Australian expert in precision and digital agriculture. Robotics, artificial intelligence and other technologies and knowledge will be developed and disseminated to farmers and primary producers on the farm, including new sustainability and carbon models.

Next-step augmentation to drive a ‘hands-free’ agenda

Professor Lamb said people immediately thought of robotic devices within the ‘hands-free’ context.

“Which is part of it, but it’s more than that; it is really anything that addresses workflow.

“So it’s not about knocking work or labour units off the property, it probably could increase it by changing the profile of the jobs,” he said.

“It’s really about technology in farming and things that could be done to save work, not necessarily cut labour units.

“We’re setting it up so it is a landscape laboratory.”

This could include proving technology such as tag readers, tags or sensors to monitor animal interactions, movement and health at watering points, and drones to muster and check mobs of sheep and cattle. Animal health data collected by individual ear tag or other sensors could be transmitted through the farm’s cyber network to a central database, leading to automated treatment in a central ‘hands-free’ yard system. Autonomous vehicles for weed and fertiliser management could also be trialled.

“What we are talking about is next-step augmentation which drives the hands-free agenda.

“It’s collecting data and intelligence that saves the manager a job,” Professor Lamb said.

“There is also a strong interest in confinement and lot feeding of sheep and lambs.”

On the farm, this could involve monitoring and managing individual feed and water intake via ear tags, giving feed efficiency data linking into development of estimated breeding values for lamb sires, Professor Lamb said.

“That’s definitely something that we will be looking very closely at.

“These are the dimensions that we have set the farm up to deal with.”

Professor Lamb said technology was also available to improve feedbase management, including drones and remote sensing satellites to assess biomass and pasture quality. But he said the precision agriculture technology could do with a “leg up” in terms of broadscale adoption.

“So the way it will be presented and rendered on this farm will be to try to get that next level of interest and uptake.

“It’s going to be about the art of the possible – validating and proving innovations – in a real operating system; it is almost like a landscape laboratory at the same time,” he said.

“But it will also have a very strong education outreach component, not just a proving site for ‘gee-whizzery’, it’s got to have a strong tech-transfer component.”

Professor Lamb said the ‘smart’ in smart farms meant ‘Sustainable Manageable and Accessible Rural Tech’.

“It’s got to do that last mile of demonstration feeding into tech-transfer.

“There is a lot of stuff out there on the shelf that could do with a good solid thrashing on a real operational farm and we can learn stuff as we do it,” he said.

Although there were no immediate plans to test virtual fencing of livestock, but such systems would benefits from the farm’s strong connectivity, Professor Lamb said.

“So if and when these trials require that sort of context, it’s ready to go.

“At the end of the day it is open to the developing marketplace and ecosystem to join forces with us and come out and have a crack.”

Professor Lamb said the access points for farmers and innovators to the Global Digital Farm will include through an online ‘ideas café’ and the university’s AgriPark agritech facility. Events will also be held demonstrating technology and trials.

A commercial, educational and community facility

Charles Sturt University Professor of Food Sustainability Niall Blair said the GDF will be a commercial operation, educational facility and community outreach facility rolled into one.

“This ambitious and unique project will arm Australia’s primary industries workforce with knowledge and technology in crucial fields like data analytics, geospatial mapping, remote sensing, machine learning and cybersecurity.

“The Global Digital Farm will utilise Charles Sturt University’s world-class research and development capability in the agriculture space to help ensure the next generation of Australia’s farmers are at the forefront of innovation,” he said.

Food Agility chief executive officer Richard Norton said the reality of a ‘hands-free’ farming was closer than many realised and would be accelerated by the development and dissemination of technology produced by the GDF.

“Full automation is not a distant concept, there are already mines in the Pilbara operated entirely through automation.

“It won’t be too many years before technology will take farmers out of the field and immerse them in the world of robotics, automation and artificial intelligence,” he said.

“Food Agility, Charles Sturt University and the Riverina will be at the forefront of that transformation in Australia courtesy of the Global Digital Farm.”

The GDF will develop and operate:

  • Fully autonomous machinery – robotic tractors, harvesters, survey equipment and drones
  • Artificial intelligence informing management decisions around sowing, dressing and harvesting
  • A state-of-the-art cyber-secure environment establishing best practice management of the emerging cybersecurity risks in food production
  • New sensor technologies measuring the interactions between plants, soils and animals
  • Evidence-based sustainability practices and models
  • Carbon management and measurement models

Photo: (from left) Food Agility Chief Scientist Professor David Lamb, Food Agility CEO Mr Richard Norton, Charles Sturt University Interim Vice-Chancellor Professor John Germov, and Charles Sturt University Chief Operating Officer Mr Rick Willmott.

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  1. Mick Alexander, June 12, 2021

    Not a farmer among these so-called experts, who are deciding what our future farms will look like. How about developing a solid knowledge base on soil health and microbial enhancement and plant nutrient management for disease control before trying to do away with people as farmers. We need regenerative farmers to drive any future enhancements in farm technology.

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