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Digital innovation new focus of research investment

Article I Rosie O’Keeffe

Photography I Kylie Browne


An on-farm demonstration of digital technologies has been developed at the University of Sydney’s Narrabri farm “Llara”. Rosie O’Keeffe gains insight into how DigiFarm has brought together the community, farmers and environmental stakeholders as a new key research project for the site and how other key findings continue to impact agricultural practices in north west NSW and further afield.

Demonstrating digital technologies to farmers has become a key focus of the University of Sydney’s research centre at Narrabri in North West NSW.


The site, which was initially established by the university and the NSW Wheat Research Foundation, has been a hub for grains research for more than 60 years and is one the longest running farmer-research collaborations in Australia.


And now, the facility is maintaining its recognition as an important scientific institute with a new state-of-the-art $13 million International Centre of Crop and Digital Agricultural Excellence facility currently under construction, in addition to its newly developed key research project DigiFarm.


“We could see a future in digital technologies and a knowledge gap in the region, so we applied for some funding under the Australian Government’s Smarter Farming Partnerships Landcare Program to set-up a demonstration farm to showcase some digital technologies to farmers. DigiFarm has more than 200 sensors monitoring our farm 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for soil, water and biodiversity,” Director of Northern Agriculture at the site, Dr Guy Roth explains.


Around 20 companies including Goanna Ag have provided technology to be used for the project, from soil moisture systems, cameras, livestock weighing, pasture and crop monitoring, insect smart-traps, robotic weed spraying, biodiversity sensors, and feral wild pig tracking.


Delta Ag has been involved in the DigiFarm project through Goanna’s soil moisture and tank/trough monitoring technologies. In addition, Delta Ag supplied and installed two Terrasonde soil moisture probes and base stations for the project.


Despite the evaluation initially planned to be completed next year, it is anticipated with the establishment of the new facility, the demonstration site will also be still operational and will continue an as ongoing core project at the Narrabri site.


“Our aim has been to demonstrate what digital technologies work and through the process we have certainly found some that don’t work, and I believe it starts a long journey in the digital agriculture space,” Dr Roth says.


“A lot of technologies take 30 to 40 years from when the idea is conceived to when the innovation is widely adopted and I believe we are still in the first decade of this journey with the digital farming technologies, so we do have a long way to travel. “The technologies are getting better, cheaper, more reliable, and hopefully in time they will be more integrated into agricultural enterprises. What we are finding with our digital research is that it can seem a lot easier to incept ‘on paper’ and when we have come to actually practically incepting the technology, there is a lot more detail involved in investigating the type of network is needed, the right way of installation and service with that, and then there is the maintenance of cables and the connectivity. That has been a big learning experience for us and there is a lot of detail involved.


“Interestingly, historically, a lot of research in the agriculture industry has been conducted by the public sector, but we are finding that in the digital agriculture space a lot of research is being undertaken with private sector involvement and investment.”


Around 25 staff and post-graduate students work at the Narrabri agricultural research centre and in addition Australian Grain Technologies (AGT) has 10 staff on-site. Between the organisations, 30,000 plots of wheat, chickpeas, lentils, faba bean, hemp, canola, and barley crops are planted. Dr Roth leads the research operations at the site and liaises with agribusiness representatives and other stakeholders to identify research areas and sources funding for various projects.


Both Australian and international students have been involved in studies at the Narrabri facility to then forge their careers in agriculture.


Dr Roth also explains that 1,800ha commercial farm “Llara” is located adjacent to the centre and is also used for research and teaching. Delta Ag is the agribusiness provider for the agricultural inputs for the farm operations, including seed, chemical and fertilizer.


“The farm is representative of other commercial farming businesses here. We have rainfed and irrigated cropping, grazing of cattle and the property also has native vegetation which is beneficial from a teaching perspective. Our work can be applied to the different landscapes of this region including slopes and the plains from our farm’s unique location,” Dr Roth says.


The vision for the research facility has always been to deliver research and innovations that address strategic priorities for farmers and regional communities, while also having an impact on a national and international scale.


Research to improve water use efficiency, crop yield, and quality in response to climate variability, genetic traits for heat and drought tolerance, hybrid wheat breeding, more diverse crop rotations including legumes and cover crops, crop agronomy and soil science, weed management, regenerative agricultural systems multifunctional farm landscapes, indigenous grains and grasses, livestock sciences and digital food and farming technologies, provide scientific solutions to help secure global food production and our agricultural industries.


“A core focus of our research is pre-breeding research for heat and drought tolerance of wheat, chickpeas and fababeans. In addition, our goals are centred around improving water use efficiency, breaking the yield barrier, crown rot solutions, increasing the area sown to legumes, and their physiology and innovations in weed control.”


As part of the research, field days with demonstrations and a series of webinars provides information to growers.


Since its establishment, the facility has been conducting research on wheat varieties better adapted to north western NSW as part of the breeding program, which has resulted in a massive expansion of yields in wheat varieties that have been better adapted to the region’s climate and an increase in how much wheat overall is grown in the area.


In North West NSW, figures have shown that 60 years ago there was 30,000ha of wheat grown, and today the total area of grains planted is more than 1.5 million ha.


“During the recent drought we experienced how much climate change is affecting agriculture, so a large focus in recent times has been to select lines of wheat that are better adapted to hotter, more dry conditions and extreme weather events,” Dr Roth says.


The University of Sydney has 2,570 wheat lines with putative high temperature tolerance to enhance the breeding options for Australia’s commercial breeding companies.


“There are promising lines with high yields and low screenings we are seeing from our research and hopefully these can be integrated into commercial wheat varieties going forward.”


Other key research developed includes a hybrid wheat genetic system for higher yield and quality, trials of chickpea growth in summer months, and novel crops for the circular economy such as Indian mustard, industrial hemp and kenaf.


“We have also been monitoring the biodiversity of the farm and we’ve discovered using acoustic sensor technology we’ve identified some threatened species of bats. Bats are significant eaters of heliothis moths, the main pests of crops in our region. If we can better understand these species it will enhance natural pest control and ecosystem services, creating a more integrated pest management approach,” Dr Roth says.

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