30 Jun

A Diagnostic Eye in the Sky for Australian Farmers

Image: Merging the surveying capabilities of UAVs with diagnostic tools could provide farmers with a head start in treating poor performing crops. ‘Drone’ by David McBee is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Over the last few years, agriculture has seen a dramatic rise in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as another tool in the farm toolbox. As well as being used to check stock water and fence lines, growers have been using this technology as a way to monitor their crops from a unique perspective.

While these aerial technologies present an opportunity to survey paddocks and even identify areas of concern, most systems fail to diagnose the cause or suggest an accurate remedial strategy. A new Australian venture aims to close this gap with the development of FluroSat – a system that monitors crops, diagnoses areas of stress and recommends relevant solutions.

How the technology works

Hyperspectural images are taken by a satellite, or a drone-mounted camera flown over the crops. The images are then processed and analysed to produce a paddock map highlighting areas of stress. FluroSat also provides information about potential causes – nutrient deficiencies, water and heat stress, weeds, pests and diseases. This information can then be ground truthed by a farmer or agronomist before being actioned.

Understanding the benefits

Technologies like FluroSat offer growers the ability to detect issues much earlier than the traditional boots-on-the-ground approach. A head start on diagnosing agronomic issues potentially allows for a quicker and more effective recovery, a reduction in inputs and an increase in yield. FluroSat have estimated that their technology could increase yields by 10-35%, reduce fertiliser by 30% and decrease water use by 25%.

FluroSat are also set to offer a ‘data fusion’ service where farmers can overlay existing precision agriculture information – such as yield maps – with data captured by drone or satellite to produce a more comprehensive understanding of influencing factors. Data fusion can also include information from hand held paddock testing devices such as plant nitrogen testers, and the combined information can be used to generate maps to guide variable rate applications.

As input costs, water security, herbicide resistance and climate change become prominent issues for Australian farmers, having a more proactive approach to crop management is an obvious way to mitigate financial loss. On a national scale, this represents a multi-million dollar boost to the Australian agriculture sector with potential flow on effects to agribusiness and international trade.

The proof is in the pudding

Knowing how promising these technologies will boil down to accuracy, usability, cost and accessibility. FluroSat developers are intending on offering the product as a fee-for-service basis or by connecting a farmer with an approved contractor. While pricing is still being determined, it’s likely that the service will be available on a subscription basis. Currently in final testing stages, FluroSat is due to be released commercially in 2018.

Sources: Telstra, FluroSat

30 Jun

Satellite Technology Making Station Life Safer

Image: Advances in GPS and satellite technologies promises a safer future for the most remote workers in Australia. ‘A stockman musters cattle on CSIROs Belmont Research Station in central Queensland’ by CSIRO is licensed under CC BY 3.0

 

The next generation in Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) is set to make station life safer for those working in some of the most remote locations in Australia.

Pocket-sized beacons are currently being trialled on stations in the Northern Territory and Western Queensland, with the aim of improving the safety of workers in mobile and radio black spots.

R U OK?

The system uses GPS and satellite technology to allow two-way communication with a station’s base. Pocket-based devices can be used to send pre-programmed messages to a station’s office via email, such as “I’m okay”. Office staff can use the system to send messages to staff as a daily check-in, especially important for those who work remotely for days at a time.

A distress function sends an alert directly to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) triggering an urgent search and rescue operation. Station management can also track the location of staff in the event that they need assistance.

Beyond the black stump

Australian Agriculture Company (AACo) is assessing the fit of the system on four stations, including Canobie in the southern gulf region of Queensland. Canobie station manager Jack Morris sees the system as a way to bridge the gaps left by other communication technologies.

“Mobile phone [coverage] is non-existent and there are UHF [radio] blackspots so we’ve taken these other steps to try and keep our people safe and to know where they are, “ he said.

“We’ve got them with loader drivers and grader drivers, because they’re camped out a lot, and bore men and blokes delivering licks to cattle, so if they are in trouble they can press the button”.

To date, the system has worked well according to AACo workplace health and safety manager, Joanna den Hertog.

“We haven’t had any problems with the satellite messages; we’ve found that the satellite is reliable, Ms den Hertog said.

“We have the option of sending pre-programmed messages like ‘I’m okay’ that get send to emails and we’ve had no problems receiving those.

With an encouraging response to date from both staff and management, the system is likely to be rolled out across all properties in AACo’s 7 million hectare holdings.

“We’re looking at application on all our properties where the manager identified there’s a risk that relates to a person who works in isolation, “ she said.

Alex Thomas, an independent consultant who specialises in agricultural health and safety, sees the technology as an essential component of station life.

“Reducing the risks associated with working in remote and isolated areas has always been a challenge for pastoralists, however with the birth of new technology, anxiety levels of spouses and employers alike can be alleviated”.

Source: ABC

30 Jun

No beef for you: India bans the slaughter of cattle

Image: The Indian government has cited animal welfare reasons for banning the slaughter of cattle and buffalo, a claim rebutted by many critics. “Sacred Cow” by Guy-Claude Portmann is licensed under CC BY 2.0

One of the world’s largest exporters of beef has banned the slaughter of cattle, with the government citing animal welfare reasons for the change in policy.

The Indian government made the announcement in May 2017, including a complete ban on the trade of cattle and buffalo for slaughter.

Critics of the ban are claiming that India’s Hindu Nationalist Government is actually motivated by religious reasons. The cow is revered symbol for the nation’s 744 million Hindus.

The ban presents immediate and significant crisis for the country’s meat processing and leather value chains, worth an estimated $14 billion dollars a year for the Indian economy. In 2016, India was the second largest exporter of cattle, with Brazil taking the top spot.

Impact Downunder

News of the ban presents a potential opportunity for Australian exporters who have seen increasing competition from Indian buffalo exports to Indonesia.

“What we’ve seen in the last six to 10 months is turnoff from feedlots and slaughter numbers down 40 to 50 per cent, since the introduction of Indian buffalo,” said Stuart Kemp – CEO of the Northern Territory Livestock Exporters Association.

But with little information available from the Indian government, Mr Kemp recommends a cautious approach for the Australian industry.

“More demand for Australian product is always a good thing, but I wouldn’t be high-fiving myself just yet, there is a lot of water to go under the bridge,” he said.

Jakarta-based industry consultant Ross Ainsworth believes the ban on the slaughter of buffalo could soon be reversed.

“The cattle trade is very tiny in India because it has always been a restricted situation but the buffalo trade has risen to be the world’s largest meat trade. I would be very surprised if what appears to be a ban on buffalo is actually real when all the detail of the ban rolls out,” he said.

“It would cause the biggest disruption [to the world meat trade] since the Second World War, so I can’t see it happening.”

High-End Promises?

Global live cattle trade is becoming increasingly competitive, with countries as far away as Spain now supplying Indonesia. Bakso Balls – traditional meatballs and the most common source of meat protein for Indonesians – are being made from cheap sources of meat, including Indian buffalo.

The use of cheaper meats has forced Australian cattle to be sold to the smaller, high-end portion of the market. Although in it’s infancy, Java-based Robi Agustiar says this portion of the market does have potential for Australia.

“The industry needs to educate the consumer that if they want a cheap price, then buy the buffalo meat, but if you want great quality [beef], from a traceability system and a delicate taste, you can buy Australian meat” he said.

Sources: ABC, ABC, ABC, Census India, Aljazeera

30 Jun

Dry start to the season compounds mice woes for grain growers

After a record 2016 grain harvest, increasing numbers of mice are posing a major threat to this year’s crops.

An abundance of grain on the ground, good paddock cover and wet summer conditions have provided the ideal conditions for mice, with numbers exploding through many parts of the country.

In parts of Victoria, New South Wales and southern Queensland, frustrated farmers have seen entire paddocks of this season’s crops wiped out by mice, despite investing in costly baiting programs. Demand for off-the-shelf mouse bait products has increased the price from around $2/kg to more than $4/kg.

In South Australia, demand for bulk mouse bait from mixing stations is also at an all time high. With no similar program interstate, South Australian mixing stations have been taking orders from farmers in western Victoria.

Danger Mouse

Yorke Peninsula agronomist Chris Davey says the dry start to the season and damage from mice is making the 2017 season “one of the most frustrating I’ve seen in 20 years of being a consultant”.

In a tweet, Mr Davey posted photos showing the damage done to a client’s paddock on the Northern Yorke Peninsula where lentils were re-sown twice and even three times in certain patches, despite the farmer having applied up to eight applications of mice bait.

Tweet1

Hail knocked grain to the ground in November 2016, providing accessible feed for mice Tweet by Chris Davey, supplied.

“The hail storm that came through in November last year knocked a lot of grain onto the ground, so there’s been an abundance of food for mice for the last six or seven months”, he said.

Mr Davey estimates that the costs involved in baiting and re-sowing the paddock will cost the farmer between $110 and $140 / hectare on top of a yield penalty for this year’s harvest.

Dry times

A lack of rain during April and May is compounding the already difficult conditions faced by many growers. “There are guys around here who have been farming all their lives who tell me they’ve never seen such a dry April, May and early June before.

Even a small rainfall event could help to turn the season around, he explains. “We’ve got good subsoil moisture carried over from 2016 and we had good summer rains. Another 10mm would help to join the moisture bands up and give plants the boost they need to access moisture further down in the soil profile.

“Especially on heavier soil types – there are areas around here where sown crops haven’t germinated at all. There are also patches where seed has shot, but rotted and have needed to be reseeded”.

Tweet2

Dry conditions have caused cracks in the paddocks on the Yorke Peninsula, South Australia. Tweet by Chris Davey, supplied.

The Bureau of Meteorology is predicting a drier than average winter for many cropping regions in Australia, influenced by temperature changes of the Pacific Sea and Indian Ocean.

Source: ABC

18 May

New Technology set to Overhaul the Agriculture Industry?

Over the years, we have seen technology change numerous industries by making jobs easier and more efficient. According to a start-up named ‘FluroSat’, farmers could be in for an exciting future, as they believe to have a solution that will improve crop yields. Not only this, they believe they can save millions of revenue dollars for the whole industry.

Originally from Ukraine, Anastasia Volkova is the CEO of FluroSat and she is a qualified aeronautical engineer. Why did she start a business in agriculture? According to Volkova, she missed her mother’s tomatoes back home and this appreciation of high-quality produce started her passion for making farmers more efficient and sustainable. With her love of vegetables, she wants to improve the quality of produce making its way onto dinner tables every single night.

Essentially, FluroSat is developing a set of multi- and hyper-spectral cameras that can be mounted onto satellites and drones. Once here, this technology can be flown over fields to identify any health issues from above; for example, any crops that are deficient of nutrients or water. Furthermore, a disease might need to be extinguished before it gets a chance to take hold. Rather than relying on a farmer to walk the fields and assess the crops, this device is much faster and more reliable at finding problems.

Currently, the company is working with farmers and agronomists who make daily decisions regarding the management of crops. Using the drones, important data can be processed before then suggesting actions to remove any issues. In an advanced stage, field trials will begin shortly in Moree, Narrabri, Gunnedah, and Tamworth. According to experts, this technology could save hundreds of millions of dollars in the years ahead because yields will be higher. Additionally, water, pesticides, and fertilisers will be used more efficiently, which is something that has been a problem in recent years.

Recently, FluroSat paid a visit to Narrabri to demonstrate the technology with the Australian Cotton Research Institute; this is where the technology will be tested most extensively. Moving forward, Volkova and the rest of the team have highly ambitious plans. If all goes well in the next six months, they want to bring the product to market and then we could see one of the largest changes in the industry that we would have seen in a long time.

With news like this, it shows just what potential there is for all industries in Australia currently. If the product has a successful testing season, farms all over the country will be able to pick up on issues early and have them fixed rather than losing a percentage to disease, malnutrition, or lack of water. With the time that this will save for farmers, they will also have free time to spend elsewhere so this is huge news. As soon as we hear progress from FluroSat or any other source, we will keep you informed!

Source:  Telstra

18 May

2017 – Cattle Projections in Australia

Leading into 2017, we have high carcass weights as well as low female cattle slaughter. In the year ahead, we are expecting much of the same but what else is going to happen in 2017? Today, we will be taking a look through the cattle projections in Australia for this year.

Earlier in the year, it was expected that just over seven million cattle would be slaughtered and recent reports suggest that this was accurate (although we can’t be sure just yet). Currently, there is significant supply pressure but the heavier carcasses are said to be the first step of alleviating this pressure. As a result, we are expecting a small decrease (1%) in beef and veal production compared to the same time period last year.

In terms of the weather, this plays a huge role in the cattle market and we saw good rainfall towards the end of 2016 and into the New Year. With this, it has re-energised the cattle market and prices have increased in the first couple of months of 2017. However, the pressure will come back around as we move towards the middle of the year as national herd numbers slowly increase. In addition to this, the conditions globally are also softer than we would like which means that the seasonal decline will come around as expected.

April Update

Just recently, we saw the release of the ‘April Update’ from Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) and it this is where much of the information above originated. As we start to get comfortable with the second quarter, the floods in New South Wales and Queensland have severely reduced the expected slaughter. However, experts believe that this could recover towards the end of May and into June as mustering cattle become accessible.

When it comes to shipment to the other large markets, these were quite mixed in the first quarter and they actually reflected the competition and production we are currently seeing at home. On a global scale, the largest market still remains as Japan and they witnessed a 22% increase in the amount of shipments made. Thanks to replenished domestic production, the US reduced their interest by around 27%. Furthermore, the amount of shipments reaching Korea fell by almost one-fifth compared to last year. For our exports to China, a 4% growth figure was seen.

Future Years

Within the report, we can also see the projected figures right up until 2021 and this will be interesting viewing to see how close to accurate they prove to be. For slaughtering, the MLA has predicted an increase of one million by 2021 up to 8,100,000. For average carcass weight, this will increase by around three kilograms whilst beef production will rise by 200,000 tonnes.

Looking globally, imports are widely expected to remain stable over the next four years whilst exports see a boost of 18%. As mentioned, these are just predictions so far but it certainly makes for interesting reading for the next few years!

 

Source: Meat & Livestock Australia

18 May

Guide to Australian Grain Production

According to recent reports, around 22 million hectares of grain crops are planted each and every year in Australia. With the improvement in technology in recent years, grain production has become more reliable and efficient but the split environment still remains the same; the weather patterns have created a north/south divide during the two crop growing periods. Whilst some areas are going for one crop per year, some regions have the right soil and climate to produce in both summer and winter.

On the Whole

If we look at the country as a whole, we are now planting grain crops one whole month earlier than around 30 years ago and this is due to more summer rainfall, less winter rainfall, and various other environmental changes.

North

Ultimately, this is considered as southern and central Queensland passing through New South Wales and down to the Dubbo region. Since the majority of rainfall comes in the summer, this is when the grain crops are produced. However, farmers also see success in the winter because the clay-based soils hold onto moisture and they get help from small winter rains.

In the north, winter crops are actually planted at very different times as New South Wales go through to July whilst Queensland start in March. Therefore, the harvest and rewards of this are seen in September all the way through to the end of the year. For summer crops, these are planted from September through to February.

Examples – Whilst winter sees chickpeas, wheat, barley, faba beans, field peas, oats, triticale, and canola (amongst others), summer is known for sunflowers, sorghum, maize, soybeans, peanuts, and cotton.

South

Elsewhere, the southern region goes below Dubbo to meet Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and includes the wheat belt of WA. In the latter regions, winter is fairly dominant. Generally, the summer sees Mediterranean climates while the rainfall comes in winter, which leads to crop production at this time. Normally, this starts with the ‘opening rains’ in May with the harvest starting in October.

Examples – Typically, summer only really returns maize and irrigated rice but winter can be used for wheat, oats, barley, cereal rye, lupins, canola, lentils, safflower, vetch, and more.

Main Crops

In 2017, wheat remains as the biggest crop in Australia because it is important for pasta, bread, biscuits, and noodles. Although it makes up just 3% of the world supply, it contributes up to 15% of the world’s trade of wheat. After this, barley is also important with over eight million tonnes being produced each and every year. On the world stage, barley trade is huge for Australia providing just less than one-third.

Finally, canola is highly sought after since it is used as food-grade oil and sorghum can be used for consumption by humans or livestock. What we can summaries is that Australia is one of the leaders on the global market when it comes to oats.

Source: Australian Export Grains Innovation Centre 

10 May

457 Australian Work Visa Program is Axed

Over the years, the 457-visa program has not been short of its problems and now the Turnbull government is taking action by replacing it with a Temporary Skill Shortage Visa program. In the new program, there are two different offerings with short-term and medium-term lasting for two and four years respectively. Furthermore, labour market testing will include a two-year work experience requirement, a non-discriminatory test, and a market salary rate assessment.

The Numbers

According to a report back in June 2016, there were around 95,000 holders of the 457 visa and within the Australian labour market, this comes to less than 1% of workers. For those looking to gain a visa for entry, the new visa could be seen as bad news since there are now fewer occupations listed. For the two-year option, there are 268 whilst the four-year visa offers 167 occupations; around 215 fewer than previously. Additionally, a criminal check will be necessary along with English language requirements. Although the initial changes have been implemented already, the full change is expected in 2018.

Impact

Whenever a big change like this comes around, it is important to look at the impact and we should perhaps start by saying that the performance of the labour market works in tangent with the visa program; ultimately, employers actually generate visas. With the new policy, the number of temporary skilled migrants is likely to reduce. Since some occupations have been removed, employers will have a smaller pool of talented workers from which to choose.

Of course, migrants need to be sponsored by employers which drive up 457 visas but the opposite effect can also occur. In the last three years (to June 2016), the amount of visa holders has fallen by more than 10% to 95,000. In truth, this could be set to continue with fewer occupations available and the information technology industry is set to be hit hardest from the change considering they are the largest sponsors. After this, others will be hindered including food services, professional, technical, and scientific services, as well as accommodation services.

Permanent Visas

Between 2015 and 2016, over 50,000 people were granted a permanent visa from a 457 visa and we are currently unsure what this change will do for permanent visas.

Training Fund

At the same time as removing the 457 visa, the government also introduced a training fund and this is likely to help the unemployed get back into work. Despite this being a good start, we could question whether this will really be enough? In recent years, Australian businesses have chosen skilled-migrants rather than training homegrown employees and this mindset needs to be tackled head-on.

Will it Work?

Although we can’t make a judgement and be completely sure, we can say that the two new visas will rely on the same employer-conducted testing. Sadly, the red tape is being increased for good employees so resistance is likely!

Source: The Conversation

18 Apr

National Electricity Market In Need of an Overhaul?

In order to commit to long-term affordable, low emission, and reliable energy, the National Farmers’ Association (NFF) has said that a transformation is required within Australia’s National Electricity Market (NEM).

According to the President of the NFF, the farming industry has required reliable, secure, and affordable energy for quite some time. However, the NEM is currently struggling to provide all three of these factors. With so many unjustified tariffs in the industry, farmers are struggling to survive due to overnight electricity bills increasing by two or even three times as much. For any business, this increase is nearly impossible to deal with but the effects are somewhat magnified for farmers.  

Impact

How is this affecting the industry? Not so long ago we heard about some farmers who were choosing to go ‘off the grid’ so to speak to avoid the extortionate costs. Furthermore, diesel generators are coming back into use after being abandoned for systems powered by energy. Even after this, many growers of fruit and vegetables, as well as dairy farmers are investing in whatever back-up facilities they can in case of a blackout which perhaps highlights the lack of consistency and sustainability. For farmers, a blackout of any kind can be detrimental since it shuts off the cooling systems and spoils large amounts of crops in a short time period.

Solution 

Not only is this costing farmers money, these are ‘wallpaper over the cracks’ solutions in that it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. With Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finked at the lead, the NFF has now submitted a review of the NEM. Ultimately, the review suggested that the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) need to step in and create a sustainable framework to address the ongoing issues.

However, these changes aren’t just needed by farmers, because around 33% of Australian greenhouse gas emissions come from the generation of electricity. In the long-term, this just isn’t sustainable which is why action needs to be taken today. Additionally, the report suggests that favouring specific technologies isn’t the right decision when you could allow them to compete on their own merits and choose the most efficient and cost-effective solutions.

Although it would be difficult to meet the criteria of the NFF, they believe that the best answer is a market-based approach. Instead of using electricity as a bargaining tool, experts think that both sides need to move on from the past and work towards a long-term solution that benefits both parties. Currently, a ‘do-nothing’ approach is being employed but this isn’t sustainable because it will ruin many industries including farming.  

With this in mind, we clearly see the opinion of the NFF and it is surely only a matter of time before we see changes? At the very least, we can hope for open discussions between the two parties. If heads are put together, we have an opportunity to reduce the pressure on farmers and move forward, rather than going backwards with diesel-powered generators!

Source: National Farmers Federation

18 Apr

Livestock Shortage in Australia – Foreign Investment the Solution?

Ever since the problem of a shortage in livestock surfaced, many have proposed solutions but now one general manager believes foreign investment to be key. Greg Cross, at Fletcher’s International Exports, said that livestock was above 36 million when the company opened a processing facility in Narrikup nearly 20 years ago. Now, it stands a little above 13 million and Cross believes the industry is in ‘trouble’.

In a recent interview, he continued by saying that these were ‘challenging times’ since wool prices are so high, livestock numbers are so low, and the weather even seems to be betting against the processors. Normally, the facilities belonging to Fletcher’s never have stand-down days leading up to the summer but they have been forced to take five already this year.

Weather

Although Cross says there are other factors in play, the extended rains allowed a good amount of feed and water for all farmers. However, the many problems need a fast solution and the only way to do this is to encourage foreign investment. In the long term, he believes improved technology and innovation would bring more producers to the market but this isn’t something that can be introduced quickly. Therefore, investment from a foreign source is the only way to have an impact right now.

Population 

At this stage, we should also mention the increase in world population. Not only is this figure growing over time, more people are learning about the value of protein. In the Middle East, China, and India, this has been a huge focus in recent years but it is a tricky balance because the good people of Australia still need their protein too.

Employees 

Back to Cross and Fletcher’s, he said that the current state of the industry was having a huge impact on all processing employees. Suddenly, businesses are having to cover their costs which means that hard-working individuals are losing days of work. With each employee comes a mortgage, family, and various other costs and businesses are having to tell them that they have stand-down days which can be devastating.

Although the company did expect a drop in production due to the various factors we have discussed, Fletcher’s were surprised at just how much of an impact these factors had. For producers, the low amounts of livestock passing through abattoirs is very good news despite not being welcomed by most processors.

For Cross, he finished off by saying that he has been in the industry for 30 years so he has seen it all. With the good days come the bad; he says that things always flip around sooner or later from good to bad or bad to good and this is something that comes with the industry. With mixed luck for processors and producers, it will certainly be interesting to see whether the industry receives the foreign investment Cross suggests is the solution!

Source: ABC News