31 Jan

There’s an App for That: Geofencing Technology Offers a Biosecurity Boost for Grapegrowers

Image: Project Boundary Rider was developed to assess the use of spatial technologies in protecting the wine grape industry from pest and disease threats. Image supplied by Vinehealth Australia.

Could the smartphone be used in the fight against on-farm biosecurity risks? A recent trial led by Vinehealth Australia has shown encouraging results.

Protecting South Australia’s winegrape industry is serious business when you consider that the industry contributes an estimated $2.11 billion to the State’s economy each year.

Vinehealth Australia – the body charged with leading the fight against phylloxera and other pest and disease threats in South Australia – has recently completed a project aimed at assessing the fit of a pocket-based solution to help growers tackle biosecurity issues at the farm-gate level.

Coined Project Boundary Rider, the demonstration pilot was rolled out among selected vineyards in 2017 as a way to see what role spatial technologies might play in on-farm biosecurity.

How the Technology Works

The system uses geofencing technology to define a virtual boundary around a grower’s holdings, with triggers set up to send a notification each time a smartphone crosses the property boundary.

Once the geofences are established, the landholder and any visitors use the Boundary Rider app to track movement across the property, providing notifications and alerts to users.

The log of movements across the property is stored in a cloud-based server and is available for the grower and Vinehealth Australia to review. In the case of pest or disease outbreaks, this information can be accessed to potentially help pinpoint the source and minimise any spread.

Project Boundary Rider

In 2017, a trial of the technology was launched among vineyard owners in the Barossa and McLaren Vale regions on a total of 130 separately fenced sections.

Once the geofences were established, vineyard workers and contractors downloaded the Boundary Rider app that automatically monitors movements across the boundary.

‘[During the trial, we] recorded more than 4,194 sets of movements across the geofences in the pilot. These movements have been consolidated into electronic visitor logbooks for each vineyard owner, with records showing who has gone in and out and when,’ said Suzanne McLoughlin, Technical Manager for Vinehealth Australia.

Assessing the Potential

Vinehealth Australia CEO Inca Pearce says the pilot showed ‘huge scope’ for the tool to be used in the fight against biosecurity risks.

‘The trial proved that the system definitely has the capability to act as a biosecurity measure,’ she said.

‘Pilot participants reported that there were several other benefits from using the app including monitoring mainstream security, tracking the spread of weeds and helping protect workers from chemical exposure after a spray application.’

Since releasing information about the trial, several other agricultural sectors have expressed interest in the technology.

‘Representatives from the pork, dairy and grains industries are interested in how the technology could be adapted to suit their biosecurity needs,’ Inca said.

‘We did identify a few technical issues with the system, including the drain on battery power, but technology in this area is rapidly improving the performance in this regard. Once these issues have been solved, there is good potential for the technology to be rolled out on a broader basis.’

Vinehealth Australia was commended for Project Boundary Rider with a Small Project Award at the South Australian Spatial Excellence Awards in 2017.

Sources: Vinehealth Australia

31 Jan

Breakthrough in Disease Management Offers Hope to Global Citrus Industry

Image: North and South American citrus crops have been decimated by citrus greening disease. Image by pics_pd from Pixnio under a CC0 licence.

Brazilian researchers are one step closer to having a viable solution for citrus greening disease, after a breakthrough identified a molecule responsible for attracting the insect that spreads the disease.

Following six years of research, scientists at Fundo de Defesa da Citricultura (Fundeciturs) have isolated a molecule that attracts the insect responsible for spreading citrus greening disease – a plague-like disease that has caused havoc in the citrus growing regions in North and South America.

Having identified this molecule, researchers now hope to harness the pheromone to develop a product to attract and trap the insect, preventing it from infecting further trees. A commercial solution should be available to growers in 12-months, according to the researchers leading the project.

“This will not cure greening disease, but it will allow us to work in an intelligent and assertive way against the insect,’ said Juliano Ayres, general manager of Fundecitrus.

About Citrus Greening Disease

Trees with citrus greening disease (Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus) produce green, misshapen and bitter fruit, and die within a few years. Over the past ten years, the disease has had a devastating impact on the citrus growing regions in North and South America. In Brazil’s main orange producing regions – Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais, 32 million trees are infected with the disease, out of a total of 175 million trees.

In California, the first cases of the disease were identified in 2008. More than 75% of Californian citrus trees have been infected, with industry losses estimated to be more than US$4.6billion in revenue and US$1.76billion in job losses. Earlier this year, Hurricane Irma caused widespread damage across California, compounding the woes of many citrus growers.

Citrus fruit is also grown in Texas and Florida, which have both suffered the ill effects of citrus greening disease.

Citrus Greening Disease Down Under

While Australia has remained free of citrus greening disease, some experts believe that current biosecurity measures are not enough to adequately protect the local citrus industry.

Adjunct professor Andrew Beattie from the University of Western Sydney warns that a lack of monitoring the psyllid insect that carries the disease poses a risk for Australian growers.

‘We must be thoroughly prepared, but I don’t believe that we are. I think the current incursion management plan is not adequate and needs revision because it’s more generic than it needs to be’, he said.

Dr Beattie believes that individual trees in Australia could be infected, but the disease hasn’t spread because of the lack of psyllids in Australia.

‘Travellers pose a risk because infested fresh curry leaves were intercepted in 2013’, he said.

It is also feasible for psyllids to arrive in Australia on cyclonic winds, as they did in Florida.

Sources: The Australian, Daily Bulletin, Chicago Tribune, ABC

31 Jan

Upgraded dairy leads to happier farmer and happier cows

Image: Dairy Farmer Geoff Hutchinson with his newly installed automated dairy. Image from The Stock Journal.

A newly installed parlour-style dairy has helped farmer Geoff Hutchinson to improve the profitability and productivity of his Fleurieu Peninsula dairy farm.

For many dairy farmers across Australia, innovation and progress are essential ingredients to remain sustainable in such a complex and volatile sector of the industry.

In Myponga on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia, the move to a modern milking system has helped farmer Geoff Hutchinson stay ahead of the curve by improving daily operations, as well as increasing the well being of his herd.

The new dairy is a DeLaval P2100 Parallel Parlour, currently able to milk 30 cows at any one time with the capacity to increase that number to 36. The increased capacity will allow Mr Hutchinson to increase his herd from 200 to 240 Holstein cows.

Precision Nutrition

On top of the added capacity, the new system is able to trickle feed grain to cows while they are milked. Feed rations are formulated to suit each animal’s production and lactation requirements, triggered by the electronic ID tag in each animal’s ear.

‘Anything giving over 20 litres a day gets nine kilograms of grain and then it’s averaged down for the cows giving less or getting closer to drying off,’ said Mr Hutchinson.

‘But one of the features for me is it doesn’t drop [the grain] in one big hit, it feeds it out about 1kg a minute.”

Steadying the flow of grain has meant less waste and mess and seemingly happier cows.

‘They just sit there and chow down on grain and are very happy’.

‘Output’ is also dealt with more effectively, with a gutter collecting manure before an auto flush system removes it.

Along with an auto-draft and electronic ID systems, the new set up has halved milking times from four to two hours per shift, meaning more time at pasture for the cows and an increase in employee productivity.

Fleurieu Milk Company

As a part owner of the Fleurieu Milk Company, milk produced on Mr Hutchinson’s farm is transported to a nearby factory to be used in milk and yoghurt products.

The company was started by Mr Hutchinson and two farming neighbours in 2003 as a way to improve the profitability and viability of their farms. Now offering a range of milk, flavoured milk, cream and yoghurts, the brand focuses on the direct-from-the-farmer message to appeal to consumers.

The short physical distance between supplying dairies and the factory provides the Fleurieu Milk Company with a key point of difference from its competitors, alongside the un-homogenised products and farmer-friendly brand.

Sources: The Stock Journal, Fleurieu Milk Co.

31 Jan

Taking the Bull by the Horns: Agriculture Finally Faces Up to WH&S Obligations

Image: Working in agriculture poses the highest risk factor for Australian workers. Image: Rustic Farm by Marvin10 from pixabay, available through a CC0 license.

A new focus on safety and risk by agricultural companies signals a change in attitude towards workplace health and safety.

Australian agriculture has one of the worst safety records with a 2016 report citing 14.8 fatalities per 100,000 workers, double the fatality rate of any other industry.

Despite the traditionally casual approach to safety in agriculture, a recent increase in the hiring of risk management specialists is proof that attitudes in the industry are starting to change.

‘Over the past five years we’ve seen a greater emphasis on safety within human resources and operations management roles’, said Geoff Lucas, CEO of The Lucas Group.

‘More recently, we’ve been engaged by clients to identify candidates to specifically manage WH&S, this shows that agricultural corporations are focussing more on compliance and risk management’.

Mr Lucas believes that candidates who have cut their teeth on safety in other industries bring a new set of skills and experience to agriculture.

‘They come from highly compliant environments such as mining and construction, which provides agricultural businesses highly trained staff who are able to offer a new perspective on a range of safety and risk management systems’, said Mr Lucas.

Reputational Risk

In addition to protecting workers from being harmed, the growing trend towards a focus on on-farm safety stems from a need to protect the reputation of the industry for the benefit of potential investors.

According to Kim Morrison, a senior executive with Blue Sky Alternative Investments, agriculture’s traditionally poor safety record is a big turn off for superannuation investors.

‘Reputational risk is a big issue for these super funds. They don’t want to be on the front page of the newspaper for the wrong reasons,’ he said.

‘Unless you can illustrate best practice and show you are doing the training and investing in this, it’s simply not going to qualify for institutional investment’.

A New Appointment

Hancock Farmland Services Australia has joined the growing band of safety-conscious companies having recently created a dedicated safety and risk position.

The newly appointed Health, Safety, Environment and Risk Manager will be responsible for minimising WH&S risks and incidents across the company’s almond holdings.

According to the Hanock’s Managing Director Andrew Strahley, the position was created to further improve the company’s culture of improved safety.

‘[We want] to continuously develop the company’s health and safety strategy and manage the delivery of initiatives associated with that strategy’, said Mr Strahley.

The appointment of the new health, safety, environment and risk management resulted in a candidate selection process managed by The Lucas Group.

Managing the Transition

Independent work health and safety consultant Alex Thomas cautions that WHS models from other industries need to be adapted to suit agriculture and agribusiness entities.

‘It’s important to acknowledge the intent of legislation – which is simply to prevent someone from being killed or seriously injured. WHS practitioners that have come from other industries are often inclined to take a more bureaucratic approach – which can easily detract from the practical management of critical risks’, she said.

According to Ms Thomas, farmers can make efficiency gains in WHS by implementing cultural change.

‘The best catalyst for making positive changes to work health and safety is to engage with your workers and to lead by example. Business owners do not necessarily need to fork out in order to improve the safety of their workers’.

Sources: The Weekly Times


30 Nov

2017 Harvest a Mixed Bag for Australian Grain Growers

Image from MaxPixel under a CCO creative commons license.

Poor early season conditions, unseasonably high temperatures and a lack of rain have led to a concerning season to growers in many grain regions around Australia.

In September this year, the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics and Sciences announced that this year’s harvest would be 40% smaller than 2016 harvest with all major crops ‘suffering significant falls in production’.

Regional RoundUp

Late opening rains challenged farmers on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, although initial harvest reports suggest that some areas have seen some recovery. While yields are still below average, grain quality is generally good. Recent rains put a stop to harvest across the state, no doubt causing further frustration for growers.

Tough growing conditions and a difficult harvest were compounded with the news that the ban on genetically modified crops in South Australia will likely be extended until 2025, after legislation was passed in state parliament.

Rain has been a recent thorn in the side of Victorian growers, with some areas experiencing damaging hailstorms over the weekend. Reports of hail were recorded across the state from Donald to Eat of Echuca with hailstones 2cm in diameter seen in Boort and Serpentine.

Many farmers north of Emerald in Queensland finished up harvesting some weeks ago, and those yet to finish have had to wait out the rains to finish up. Moisture has contributed towards the downgrading of quality with chickpeas splitting and becoming mouldy.

The story is similar in Southern Queensland and northwest New South Wales where reaping has been halted with wet weather. The first deliveries of chickpeas have been downgraded with issues including poor colour, staining, frost damage and mould.

In Western Australia, things are looking up with an improvement in the harvest estimate up to 12.3 million tonnes, with potential for 13mt. WA’s record was set last year when harvested grain totalled 16.6mt.

This year, favourable late-season temperatures and good September rains have led to increased confidence in the industry. Of all grain types, wheat had the highest estimate increase to 6.9mt.

Profitable Season for GrainCorp

Last week GrainCorp announced annual profits of $142million, more than double the profit earned in the previous financial year ($53million). The company cited strong global demand for malting barley, driven by the growing craft beer market, and the record 2016 harvest, as drivers of the increase.

Sources: Farm Weekly, ABC, ABC, Weekly Times, The Land,

30 Nov

Abattoir in Hot Water over Animal Welfare

Image: Animal welfare activists captured the footage at the Star Poultry Supply abattoir in Melbourne. Photo by Skeeze from Pixabay, under a Creative Commons 2.0 License.

The poultry industry is the latest to be accused of serious breaches in animal welfare standards after video footage emerged of live chickens being submerged in boiling water.

The footage, which was obtained by ABC’s 7.30 program, shows hens being boiled alive at the Star Poultry Supply slaughterhouse in Melbourne.

It is believed that the abattoir slaughters the hens at 18 months after they are retired from laying eggs. According to industry regulations, chickens should be stunned and then killed immediately with a slit to the throat, before being plunged into boiling water to remove their feathers. But the footage clearly shows the chickens are conscious prior to being submerged in the water.

Follow-Up Action

In March this year, the footage was handed PrimeSafe – the Victorian abattoir regulator, who investigated the matter and subjected the abattoir to ‘enforcement action and increased regulatory oversight until improvements in animal handling, including back-up slaughter, were implemented,’ according to a statement released by PrimeSafe.

The matter was then referred to Agriculture Victoria, but the department declined to launch an official investigation of the matter.

A statement from the department said ‘Agriculture Victoria was satisfied that the remedial action being taken by the company, at the direction of PrimeSafe, and some staff changes would help manage the instances of poor practices demonstrated on the footage.’

Poultry Consultant Greg Mills explains that the outcome is balanced in terms of animal welfare and industry needs.

‘If the animal welfare concerns stem from a process issue within the abattoir, you can fix that rather quickly. The best welfare outcome is to have the facility running and running well,’ he said.

Mr Mills explained that shutting down the facility – as a short-term or permanent options, would risk transferring animal welfare concerns to other parts of the supply chain.

‘There aren’t a lot of similar facilities, so you risk putting slaughtering back on farms which could create other issues’.

Sources: ABC, News

30 Nov

First National Ag Day Not Without Controversy

Image: Australia’s first national Agriculture Day celebrated the contribution of the industry. Photo Farmers’ Market from Wikimedia, under a Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Australia’s inaugural National Agriculture Day was hosted on Thursday 21st November, organised to highlight the significance the industry plays in the lives of all Australians.

The #AgDay celebration was originally the idea of Gina Rhinehart, led by the National Farmers Federation and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.

The movement aimed to ‘celebrate the remarkable contribution of agriculture to Australia’s economy and society’ through events and a media campaign, with consumers encouraged to join in on social media.

According to the National Farmers Federation, the campaign reached 8.7 unique social media accounts, with 130,000 views of the AgDay video and stories featured by mainstream media outlets including The Daily Telegraph, The Australia, Channel 9, Channel 7, Fairfax and the Today Show. More than 50 events were hosted around the country including a pop-up farmers market for Canberra growers held at NFF House.

AgDay Backlash

The event wasn’t without controversy with farmers accusing industry bodies of ‘selling out’ by accepting money from retail giant Coles. The company’s managing director, John Durkan, was featured in an official video on the National Agriculture Day website where he highlighted the link between agriculture and the ‘millions of jobs in retail and other industries’.

In an interview with the ABC, prominent Mallee farmer Andrew Broad hit back at Mr Durkan’s comments saying ‘[Coles] can’t put their hand on their heart and say, ‘down, down, prices are down’, which is cheapening food in the mind of the consumer. You can’t have that and have supermarkets running around saying they’re friends of the farmers and [they’re] going to sponsor National Ag Day’.

Farmers also expressed their concern about the involvement of Gina Rinehart in the event with one grower publically challenging NFF Chief Executive Tony Mahar to ‘pull #NFF support for #AgDay until it is non-partisan and not a Gina PR trap’.

During the official AgDay Gala dinner, Ms Rinehart sung the praises of former Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce, describing him as a ‘champion of our industry’ and a ‘dedicated, understanding and enthusiastic minister’ before awarding him with a cheque for $40,000.

Less than a day later, Mr Joyce publicly declined the cheque after a backlash from the industry and political opponents. During his acceptance speech, Mr Joyce had claimed he would spend the money on his own farm.

National Farmer’s Federation President Fiona Simson said that the NFF had no prior knowledge about the award for Mr Joyce, ‘We were not consulted & completely surprised by the presentation last night’, she wrote in a tweet.

30 Nov

Almonds in One Basket: Griffith Grower Consolidates Crops

Image: Almond trees in blossom. Photo from pixabay under a CCO Creative Commons license.

Griffith growers the Dinicolas family have recently converted their mixed farming business to focus purely on almonds, without any regrets.

Originally following in his father’s footsteps, second-generation farmer Denis Dinicolas started his farming career by growing rice, vegetables, grain crops and sheep, but the growing trend towards healthy foods led Denis to believe that nuts offered a more lucrative return.

‘With the health-trend boom, nuts became the pick of the horti crops,’ he said. ‘Of all the nuts, almonds offered the fastest return on investment’.

As a way to dip his toe in the water, Denis started by planting 30ha of almonds, joining grower co-operative AlmondCo in 2002. In 2004, he began planting more trees, selling two of his three rice farms to fund the expansion.

‘We kept the rice farms while we were developing to help with investment and pay the bills’.

Booming Industry

The family now has 485ha of almond trees, trading under the name Mandole Almond Orchard.

75% of Australia’s almond properties are 100ha or less, so the Dinicolas’ enterprise is considered to be large by industry standards. 243ha of the property is in full production, with the remaining plantings due to be in full production by 2022.

The current stock of almond trees are self-pollinating varieties, chosen to eliminate the need for beekeeping services, which are becoming harder to source. The trees start producing nuts after three years and are in full production mode within eight to 10 years from planting.

Currently, the Dinicolas’ property produces around 700 tonnes a year. With the expansion, it is predicted that they will double production by 2022, with 88,000 nut-bearing trees.

‘Planting almonds worked out very well, better than we expected’, said Denis.

‘We had budgeted on lower returns than we ended up getting, so the higher returns made the whole transition easier.’

The Next Generation

The family’s remaining rice farm is likely to be turned into a certified organic almond orchard over a five-year period.

‘Organic production is a lot harder and requires different practices and challenges. We started looking at organics over the past 12 months because we can see a popular demand.’

‘It will be another challenge but as farmers it’s these challenges that interest us.’

The transition to almonds has been made easier by AlmondCo’s new hulling and shelling facility at Griffith. Until now, almonds have been sent to Renmark in South Australia for processing, so the new facility offers significant savings in transport.

Additionally, the Dinicolas’ have built on-farm storage to allow greater flexibility in when their crops need to be transported.

Denis’ son Dean currently runs the enterprise and was named the 2011 Young Almond Grower of the Year, using a $10,000 bursary to experience almond growing first hand in California – the world’s largest almond producer.

‘We would love to be the almond specialists,’ said Dean. ‘It’s the right nut for this area, it grows well and the climate is right. It’s a great industry to be involved in and we’re really excited about the future.’

Source: The Weekly Times

31 Oct

Breaking: Chinese ban on Aussie beef lifted

Image: The export of beef products to China will soon resume after a three-month ban was lifted. Photo by Pete Johnson from Pexels, licensed under a CCO agreement.

The Chinese Government has ended a three-month ban on the import of Australian beef products, following negotiations led by Trade Minister Steven Ciobo.

In July this year, the Chinese government delisted six abattoirs after it was discovered that there was a disparity between the box labels and the products within them.

The six abattoirs – JBS Australia’s Beef City, JBS Primo, Kilcoy Pastoral Co, Northern Cooperative Meat Co, Australian Country Choice and Thomas Food International – were suspended from sending beef products to China on July 25th this year.

Products from these six facilities account for around 30% of Australia’s beef exports to China each year, and some have estimated total potential losses of up to $1million per day.

Minister for Trade, Steven Ciobo announced the lifting of the ban today, noting the significance of the trading partnership between the two countries.

‘Australia has an excellent relationship with China, our largest trading partner. The goodwill generated by the success of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) assisted in resolving this matter quickly’.

‘I am grateful for Chinese authorities who worked alongside us to get us back on track,’ said Mr Ciobo on the Nine Network this morning.

Similar bans imposed by China on other countries have taken significantly longer to resolve. It took the German government five months to resolve a ban stemming from the mislabelling of pork products.

Canadian pork was banned for 18 months of a concern regarding additives.

Sources: Weekly Times, Trade Minister, Beef Central.

31 Oct

Meat and Three Veg: Fresh produce industry needs to get with the program to retain profitability

Image: Lettuce Feed You – Horticulture enterprises need to innovate in order to stay ahead of the curve. Photo by Michael, available at Pexel by a CCO agreement.

Australian vegetable growers need to up their game in order to remain profitable and competitive, according to a report recently released by Hort Innovation.

The Vegetable Strategic Investment Plan 2017-2021 highlights the vegetable sector as being the fourth biggest of all Australian agricultural industries behind cattle, wheat and milk. In 2015-2016, the Australian vegetable sector contributed 7.6% towards Australia’s gross agricultural production estimated at $3.5 billion.

But the current position of the Australian vegetable sector could come under threat unless large-scale change is implemented.

Rising input costs and stagnant vegetable prices are already putting profitability under pressure, with growers citing the increasing cost of electricity, fuel, chemicals and fertilisers as being of concern. In many areas, the cost and availability of irrigation water is also an ongoing battle, and the high price of employing staff is often unavoidable.

Supply woes

One of the major issues for the industry is the low number of buyers and the unfavourable ratio of growers to buyers. With few selling options, growers are often at the mercy of buyers aware of the lack of options and are forced to take the price and conditions offered to them. This has also forced growers to leap-frog agents and wholesalers in order to deal directly with retailers.

While innovation is key to staying ahead of the curve, there is some doubt that vegetable growers have the capacity to implement large-scale change. The average age of a vegetable grower is 57, with most having no TAFE or university qualifications. Most farms rely on family members as their workforce given the high cost of wages and are restricted by poor economies of scale. Combined, these conditions restrict profitability and in turn, the ability to invest in the innovation and farm technology.

Demand potential

While there has been a slight decline in domestic purchases of fruit and vegetables, some products are experiencing a rise in popularity. Sales of fresh salads, Asian vegetables, pumpkin and cauliflower all increased last financial year, while beans, cabbage, sweet corn and zucchini dropped in favour with consumers.

The good news is that there is strong potential for the vegetable industry, based on future consumer demand. Concerns regarding health, animal welfare and the environment are pushing shoppers to eat more vegetables. An estimate by Deloitte Access Economics predicts that a 10% increase in vegetable consumption would lead to an additional $23 million in profits for the industry.

Growers’ perspective

In the South Australian Riverland, growers Mark and Megan Whateley are familiar with the impact of increasing input costs.

‘Wages and electricity are certainly putting pressure on us. We have around 3-4 employees at the moment, but that will increase to around 15 in a month or so. The most frustrating side of it is that many growers pay workers illegally low rates, whereas we always pay our employees based on the SA Horticultural Agreement’, said Mr Whateley.

For the Whateleys, growing several vegetable varieties (corn, carrots and cauliflower) is a strategy specifically implemented to balance the risk associated with price fluctuations.

‘The prices paid to go up and down in a year, but overall there’s no real movement. By growing different types of veggies we’re able to avoid the downfalls of a price slump for a particular vegetable’, he said.

The more traditional mode of selling through a wholesaler is still the best option for their enterprise.

‘Agents or wholesalers give you access to multiple retailers so you can be sure that you’re selling the volume of produce required. We might get a slightly better price for dealing direct with retailers, but it would involve significant work building the relationships.

‘Retailers want guaranteed supply of a product over a 12 month period, and we can’t necessarily provide that. For our business, the wholesaler or agent model is the best’.

Source: Hort Innovation.

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