New Zealand leads the world on crop-sensing research. However, its top precision farming researcher questions the value of some tools being sold to farmers. Ian Yule, director of the Centre for Precision Agriculture at Massey University talked to Future Farming.
➤ Ian Yule
Professor Ian Yule worked at the University of Newcastle in the UK where he initiated research on precision agriculture before moving to New Zealand in 1997.
He joined Massey University as a senior lecturer and is now director of the New Zealand Centre for Precision Agriculture and was made professor in precision agriculture in 2011.
Ian holds a PhD in agricultural engineering and has a passion for sensing and has spent the past 10 years concentrating his research efforts on developing remote sensing and imaging. He oversees $10m of contracted research. He is president-elect of the International Society of Precision Agriculture.
New Zealand is renowned for its pioneering farmers and this year it wrestled the world wheat yield record back from the UK, when Eric Watson’s wheat crop achieved an impressive 16.8t/ha.
Helping these pioneers is world-class research at Massey University, known for its work on pasture sensors, precision irrigation and robotics.
The country’s top precision agriculture researcher believes all farmers can benefit from precision techniques, raising pasture and arable crop yields at little or no extra cost. However, he also warns questions remain on the affordability and usefulness of some precision farming tools.
Ian Yule, director of the university’s Centre for Precision Agriculture outlines his future vision and explains why drones are no longer part of the centre’s $10m research programme.
New Zealand farmers seem to be leading the way when it comes to adopting precision farming. Why do you believe that is the case and what can other countries learn?
"I think we have some excellent farmers, such as Eric [Watson], and these guys travel frequently overseas to learn from others. You talk to social scientists and they will say these farmers have a small network. They may not have a big network, but they have an effective network.
He [the farmer] talks to the right people overseas and they have a network back in New Zealand where they can talk to the top growers. The levels of expertise that they can achieve is really impressive.
For example, there is Craige McKenzie who was last year’s precision farmer of the year, an international award. Eric was one of the first to adopt precision irrigation in New Zealand and it’s no accident he also broke the [world wheat yield] record."
What do you believe are the key hurdles to the uptake of precision farming?
"Yes, it is seen as being too complicated. But 1 key factor is a lack of definition on the potential savings. Academics tend to be a bit unsure saying “that they may get a saving.” Researchers have to do more to understand the value and purpose of each application they are developing.
One good example is precision irrigation and every case study I have been involved in came out positive. This added up to a strong case and it was taken up very quickly by farmers, with over 40% of new systems using this approach.
With nitrogen, some optical sensors such as the Greenseeker and Crop spec are available commercially in New Zealand, at costs of between $20,000 and $40,000. They are still too expensive and we need to see these costs come down, and I think they will.
They can cost $100,000 and I’m not sure what farmers are actually getting for that money. It may be technically exciting, but we should not be adding lots of costs to farming.
Keep it simple – if you have got poor establishment in some areas, give it a bit more nitrogen fertiliser and see what happens. If it [the soil] is sopping wet, then there will be other causes.
Finally with yield mapping, many simply don’t use the information. It is the usual case that the data is still in the combine when it goes out the next year. Do farmers have the people to help them use it?"
Where do you see sensors going in 5 to 10 years?
"We have a simple pasture measuring robot that is undergoing testing and it seems to be performing well. In future, we also want to be doing hyperspectral sensing as well as phenotyping work.
Phenotyping involves getting down to the individual plant scale, as you can see nutrient deficiencies earlier than when using mass canopy data. But we don’t know what the costs of this would be.
At the moment, one of the big weaknesses is that arable farmers and horticultural growers are very time poor and we need to automate as much as possible. That is why I see robotics being key.
I do see robotics getting cheaper and even now, we can build a robot for less than what a quad bike costs. We can build our little scouting robot for $10,000-20,000, which measures grass height and calculates biomass. You could easily add other sensors.
In vineyards, these robots could tow a mower, thereby, do other useful tasks when sensing crops. UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] may also have a role once we get fully automated machines and that is probably about 3 years away."
So, why don’t drones feature in your research?
"There is a glitz factor in some technology such as drones with their inclusion often expected in government research proposals. However, we stopped our drone research programme 2 years ago, as there is the issue of weather dependency and reliability.
We have lost 2 drones in the past 3 to 4 years. One went up in smoke and the other just set off on its own. Therefore, I would not want to put any expensive equipment on one. So it may appear I have a downer on UAVs, but once they get a higher level of automation, they will be valuable for arable farmers.
For example, one New Zealand farmer, when questioned by a visiting US farmer, said: “I want a hanger with UAVs inside that know where to go and what to sense. Then they will go off and do it and return back to a charging point, recharge and download the data before going off again.”
The 1 area where they already have a use is counting stock and this is a sensible use of the technology. It is saving some farmers a lot of money, as they may run several thousand cattle over tens of thousands of hectares."
What benefits are New Zealand farmers seeing from precision agriculture?
"Farmers are achieving much higher yields by identifying weak yielding areas and then focusing on them. An example is a dairy farmer who is using pasture measurements and has increased dry matter production from 13t/ha to 19t/ha while cutting costs.
However, I do sense a change. 3 years ago, it was the Eric Watsons and the Craige McKenzies who were mainly using precision ag. They tended to be medium-sized farms with a high level of single owner input, highly knowledgeable and saw precision farming as a philosophy.
But we are now seeing it become more mainstream with corporate, larger farmers using it to control costs and improve output. Adopting precision farming has become more of a business decision. If you can get higher yields at a similar or not much more cost, then it’s a no brainer."
Is precision farming something that all farmers can do?
"Yes, and it doesn’t need huge investment. Farmers just need to start by looking at the areas with the weakest yields, or even the highest yields and question why.
Then they can be more quantitative about it, putting some numbers to it using yield maps. Most farmers underestimate the differences and often discover that the weaker yields are even lower than they thought.
Seeding is a good example of the potential benefits by saving money on seed. Farmers are generally achieving better timeliness for drilling and have better equipment to prepare better quality seed-beds.
But they are still using granddad’s rates for seed-beds that were prepared using pretty clunky machines. So there is scope to cut seed rates in some areas. There is lots of work at the moment looking at cutting rates in maize."
You're president-elect of the International Society of Precision Agriculture. What do you hope to achieve in your 2 years?
"Precision farming is changing and it is becoming a broader church than it was in the 1980s, with more and more applications and it is being used more outside the US. We are also seeing more in pastoral areas and different crops and as a society, we need to reflect this.
I also want to see more international co-operation and help drive more uptake by farmers. We are already seeing digital farming elements in events with more emphasis on the end user. Ultimately, I would like to see a strong precision agriculture community across the world.