Australian company Laconik uses data-driven technology that optimises fertiliser application.
Australian start up Laconik believes today’s fertiliser decisions are far from perfect. It has developed a new data-based solution that it released commercially to grain farmers in Western Australia in mid-January.
Laconik put its technology to the test last year, comparing it to the current method farmers use to make in-season nitrogen fertiliser decisions. The technology was evaluated in 50 replicated field trials, spread across the Wheatbelt in Western Australia.
Many areas of the Wheatbelt experienced well below average rainfall last year. As a result farmers harvested crops with a far lower yield than average. Despite this, across all trials, Laconik’s technology increased returns by 6.50 Australian dollar per hectare, when compared to the incumbent. To the average farm in Western Australia this would result in an increase of $23,000.
Digital solutions need to be compared and evaluated against incumbent methods, under field conditions, in replicated trials, to demonstrate they make the farmer money. The management of Laconik emphasises that the results from last year indicate that Laconik has a bright future ahead.
“The good thing is that we use a machine learning developed algorithm. So the more data, performance and environments we can get into it, the more accurate it will get”, says Managing Director Darren Hughes.
Laconik was founded by Darren Hughes and Wayne Pluske, who both have years of experience in the Australian grain industry. Their innovative product has been welcomed by the Australian grain industry and investors. “There is just very little outside-of-the-box thinking in the fertiliser industry”, says Mr Hughes.
Our aim is to make sure farmers won’t put too much or too little fertiliser on their paddock
Savings on fertiliser can add up. Nitrogen can be as much as 25% of the cost of growing a crop of wheat. All fertilisers together can cost as much as 35% to 45% of the operating cost of a broadacre farm, says Mr Hughes. “I recently talked to a farmer that I know and his investment was 200 Australian dollars per hectare. And the broadacre farms in Australia are often as big as 5,000 to 25,000 hectares. Our aim is to make sure farmers won’t put too much or too little fertiliser on their paddock, because that will either be a waste or loss of revenue. And both are costly.”
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Mr Hughes points out that there has been little innovation in the way decisions are made about fertiliser recommendations since the current process has been developed. “We still rely heavily on soil testing”, he says. “The first phosphorus test was published in 1963 for example. Since then we have developed 6 or 7 new tests to determine the amount of phosphorus in soil. Overall we have built a better mouse trap but we haven’t thought about how we can do this fundamentally different.”
Mr Hughes explains that the biggest determining factor in determining a crops requirement for nitrogen is yield. “And this biggest factor is nothing more than a guess that a farmer or agronomist makes”, he says. “Based on skills and experience, to plug in to a model and work out how much nitrogen a crop needs. This process is really good at working out how much fertiliser is needed for a crop grown in an area the size of a dinner table but fails when crops are grown in 400 hectare paddocks. The current method for making fertiliser recommendations fails to consider spatial variability. That is a why major error comes out.”
The Laconik co-founder grew up on a family farm, has a PhD in crop agronomy and was the general manager at the Grain Research and Development Corporation in Australia (GRDC).
“The GRDC funds nearly 200 million Australian dollar a year in grain research”, he says. “One of the jobs I had to do as a manager, was to fund new research in crop nutrition for Western Australian farmers. In order to do that I engaged my Laconik co-founder Wayne Pluske as a consultant to speak to researchers and farmers. He identified what the key problem was and what the gaps in the research were.”
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For the Laconik founders it was clear that a data driven solution would be the best option. The system they have developed, uses a farmer’s production history or the yield map data, the rainfall data, the rotation or previous crop data and the data of fertiliser that has been used to date.
“All together a range of disparate data”, Mr Hughes says. “We calculate that through the algorithm. We divide the paddock into 36 by 36 meter squares and come up with a recommendation for every square.”
Every farmer has this kind of data available, says Mr Hughes. “In the last 2 years there has been almost a doubling in the amount of data that has been collected. Every combine now has the ability to gather yield data. Not that every farmer uses this data per se. But farmers are starting to see the benefit of it.”
Laconik has been testing its technology since last year. “A number of our customers have shared access to their data through the My John Deere platform”, Mr Hughes explains. “Which enabled us to pull down all the data that we need and make a recommendation that we could send back to them.”
Taking the data and making money out of it for the farmers. That’s what we do
Mr Hughes says Laconik is not ‘in the business of collection, collation and connection’ of data. “There are businesses that have their own platform for that, and they do that so much better. We are also not in the business of the hardware. We see a gap in the market for taking that data and turning it into profitable management recommendation. Taking the data and making money out of it for the farmers. That’s what we do.”
Laconik has developed a software solution that it has been releasing to grain farmers in Western Australia since mid-January. “With this software we are enabling our technology to be scaled. We have a chief technology officer that is leading a team of developers in Nepal to get all the work done.”
Laconik’s goal is to refine the software so that farmers can log on to the Laconik website and sign up. Through this website farmers can upload their data and get their recommendation. “Farmers can get a shape file, that they can upload to their rate controller. That file goes into the fertiliser spreader and shows it where and how much fertiliser to apply in the paddock.”
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Laconik received an accelerated commercialisation grant from the Australian government for replicated trials across Western Australia, from north of Geraldton to east of Esperance. Laconik’s technology has earlier attracted 1.2 million Australian dollars to support development from Wavemaker Partners in Singapore and Artesian in Sydney.
The company also received an Accelerating Commercalisation grant from the Australian Government to help commercialise the technology. The start-up is now looking for a new round of investment of 4 to 6 million Australian dollar.
Mr Hughes says that Laconik will further develop its technology this year. “We will take our technology to the next level.” The company will test its technology this year not only in nitrogen, but in phosphorus and potassium as well.