Digital Impact on Ag

Digital technology has been quietly transforming Australian agriculture for the past few decades and is now extending to the outback and making impact in ways previously not anticipated. Education, collaboration, security, monitoring, and improved efficiencies are making a big difference in a highly competitive and risk filled environment, which is why our primary producers are jumping on board.

Back in 2015 I organised a professional development day for secondary school teachers alerting them to new career and business opportunities in rural Australia. Gareth Evans spoke to us via skype from O’Connors in Birchip. Far from moving away from the action when he left his city job to return to rural Victoria, Gareth spoke about how he has witnessed an explosion of new technology related systems supporting Australia’s agriculture industry. ‘O’Connors maintains a series of surveyed base stations strategically located throughout SA, VIC and NSW supplying a RTK signal capable of delivering 2cm accuracy,’ he explained. ‘Precision Ag means that farmers can now monitor their entire fleet on a screen and communicate with machines via live telemetrics.’

Chatting more recently on the phone with an older generation Riverina based rice grower, he told me how he was transferring data from his tractor to his agronomist’s office by email. In short, all modern farm machinery requires a level of digital literacy on the part of farmers. And this needs to be backed up by technicians trained to service these increasingly complex machines and analyse the big data they can produce.

What was initially viewed as a novelty or purely educational is now becoming serious business as the potentials are realised.

My colleague, Tim Gentle from the Think Digital Coach has been touring cattle industry events the past few months with a virtual reality experience aimed at inspiring more young people to take up farming. Initially it’s a far reach for cattle farmers but it starts to make sense when Tim spells out the possibilities and they are quickly being taken up. Virtual Reality videos can be used to help promote and sell animals, machinery and properties to buyers who are located hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away. They can also be used to induct staff in a real life, yet safe, environment.

Cost efficiencies and shared risk is seeing a resurgence in agriculture cooperatives and collaborations seeking to drive innovation and improve farm gate returns.

Funded by the Australian Government, the Farming Together Program has supported almost 500 groups with collaborative projects over the past two years. One of the projects has enabled the Birchip Cropping Group to evaluate a digital agricultural cooperative. Unless you are extremely tech savvy it is hard to know what the best choices are. Ultimately the aim is to give farmers access to trusted sources to provide increasingly complex digital technology.

As our climate continues to change and water becomes more expensive, sustainable farming practices and monitoring are becoming more important.

And, as wages increase and staff numbers fall, real time data enables farmers to better manage their crops, livestock and pastures. Progressive young cattle producers like David and Rebecca Comiskey at Melton in central Queensland have already adopted the basics and are keen to do more. With minimal staff and 8,500 hectares to monitor, apps on their smart phones currently help them to monitor their solar powered stock fences and water storage as part of their introduced rotational grazing system. They can even monitor rainfall while away from the property which helps with their planning and enables them to enjoy important recreation time.

Security on remote properties is another increasing concern.

Viewers of the acclaimed Mystery Road may have noticed camera footage from water trough locations around the Western Australian property that featured in the series and provided key clues to the disappearance of two young stockmen. Far from fiction, this is an actual tool that assists farmers Australia wide, not only with monitoring but security. Fixed cameras provide sheep breeder, Jock MaCrae in central Victoria with live feed of his assets via his smart phone. Gate monitors alert him to unusual activity and there is potential for tags to also be placed on key stock to alert him to mob movement that could indicate a dog attack or theft. All this can be verified before leaving a warm bed and driving out into the paddocks.

Improved efficiencies is essential when growing animals or crops and manufacturing related products in large quantities.

At Pentagon Feeds in northern Victoria, an infra-red machine, the size of a little computer, gives them the ability to scan incoming samples of grain, and translate the imagery into data that is then emailed to their nutritionist for analysis. Another piece of technology then accurately sprays up to an additional 4 percent of fat coating around the food pellets. A nutritionist uses the information from this equipment to formulate appropriate rations for each class of pig.

And of course digital technology is an absolute blessing for smaller producers entering niche markets.

They are able to market and sell their produce world-wide. Simply Rose Petals in northern Victoria was an early adopter of technology to transform a cut flower business into packaged rose petals for weddings and events. Sales via a website and intensive use of social media has taken their product into 15 countries. In another great example, Lauren Mathers from southern New South Wales had a vision of a herd of free roaming black heritage pigs rooting about improving the soil.  Bundarra Berkshires was subsequently born and now she sells quality pork products online and through farmers markets.

Slowly the National Broadband Network is being rolled out to the regions with wireless tower options providing access for more rural properties, however, connectivity remains a big issue in many areas.

Thankfully, there are many instances of those willing to work with innovators, finding their way around these issues.

William Creek in South Australia took the option of lobbying in Canberra and getting Optus to allocate satellite access to their tiny town.  In another partnership with Richmond Shire Council, a broadband internet service, Wi-Sky, was generated for Queensland cattle producers and now services 50 customers across a 20,000 square kilometre radius. Not only is this connecting farmers but also their children to School of the Air which has long struggled to deliver online services to many of their remote customers unable to download videos and big files.

Slade Beard from Eco Thought is approaching this same problem for remote stations through the development of smart farm sensor and control systems powered by a radio-based network with low bandwidth Wi-Fi over long distances. He plans to utilise old windmills to hosting radio masts and is now rigorously testing the hardware to ensure it can stand up to Australia’s harsh weather conditions.

Even in the more highly populated and smaller state of Victoria, issues still arise with connectivity. ‘Neighbours separated by a single hill are finding that one is eligible for high speed internet services while the other is relegated to either congested Next-G or slow and expensive satellite services,” explains Grant Sutton from Ag Cloud. His company has developed a solar-powered broadband repeating system that allows a daisy-chain radio network to be realised. In plain English, this means that farmers can extend their high speed internet reach to parts of their properties previously not able to take advantage of digital technology.

Even to a casual observer like myself, each year the agricultural industry is venturing more and more into what was previously viewed as science fiction. Digital technology is big business from one end of this big country to the other.

Just discovered this blog from the CSRIO with a more expert opinion!

KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Value of Planning


Having an unrestricted dream and writing it down into a plan can have far reaching consequences according to David and Rebecca Comiskey of “Melton” in Central Queensland.

In a harsh environment that swings from successive years of drought to a flood in the blink of an eye, it is hard to imagine how farming families continue to survive let alone run a successful business.  Recently touring Melton, an 8,500 hectare (21,000 acre) cattle property, in Central Queensland, I was privileged to witness the passion of David and Rebecca Comiskey as they paused to reflect on their achievements eight years into the implementation of a twenty year plan.

Nestled between the Drummond and Great Dividing Ranges, Melton’s Brigalow soils are highly valued in terms of land prices.  Fortunately for the Comiskeys, Melton was under developed at the time of purchase making it affordable, albeit a huge investment, for the young couple.

Drawing on modern farming techniques and networking with other like-minded producers they have taken a whole new approach to farm management since purchasing the property in 2007. 

Entering the organic market, adopting a rotational grazing system, and maximising their herd management forms a three pronged approach to their twenty year plan.  Closely monitoring and benchmarking their progress against previous years’ performances, all three goals have been fast tracked beyond their initial expectations.

Their first big decision was to go organic and the reason was quite simple according to Rebecca.  “We decided to go with grass fed organic cattle because that is what we like to eat ourselves.”

They were also very aware that their capacity to remain viable with inflation and rising costs of inputs  was limited.  “We don’t have the scale that other properties have so we had to focus on quality rather than quantity,” explains David.

To David the biggest difficulty in going organic was believing that they could do it.  “When you’ve been brought up controlling weeds with the use of chemicals, the hardest thing to do is to get rid of that paradigm in your head; to take a risk and go organic.”

In essence, organic status dictates that any input has to be natural or organic for both stock and land.  All new products are thoroughly researched and approved prior to ensure that they are compliant.

Well experienced in conducting audits and monitoring other farm activities Rebecca picked up the annual reporting in her stride. It took just three years from application until they were certified to sell organic beef and the financial benefits were immediate.  Organic beef is currently selling at around $7.20 per kilogram as opposed to $4.50 per kilogram mainstream beef.

David is quick to warn however, that anyone wanting to fast track organic status may encounter unexpected challenges.  “Because our goal has always been to go organic, we were able to deal with everything that came up along the way.”

At the crux of the Comiskey’s planning is the introduction of rotational grazing.  In essence 5,000 acres are divided by electric fencing into four sections all leading to a central water trough. Paddocks are rested  according to the growth rate of the grass, 60 days in the growing period and out to 120 days in the non-growing, allowing time for the ground cover to replenish.

“Everything starts with the earth,” explains David. “Healthy soils leads to healthy pastures which leads to healthy cattle and ultimately to healthy consumers.”

Good grazing practice stimulates growth of the primarily Buffel and native grasses.

“The rotational grazing system is far more climate effective,” says Rebecca. “For every one percent increase in Organic Soil Carbon, achieved through good grazing land management, another 72,000 litres of water can be absorbed into the soils per hectare, making our property more resilient for the droughts that will always be a part of our business.”

Thanks to a Natural Resource Management grant they have been able to fast track their plan with one quarter of the property already under the rotational grazing system.  It has also given them the opportunity to make comparisons with other paddocks still on the set stock system.  At a fence line separating a traditionally grazed paddock from a rotationally grazed paddock, the benefit is clear to see.

“We don’t have to tell anyone, they can see for themselves,” says Rebecca.

Animal health is central to the rotational grazing system.  Thanks to new and extensive water infrastructure powered by solar, the cattle have less than 750 metres to walk to water and are easily transferred from one section to another.

As part of their 20 year plan the Comiskeys have also focussed on maximising management of their 1,000 head of Brahman breeders, currently down in numbers due to recent drought conditions.  The herd originated from David’s father giving them a great base to start with.

“Genetics and genomics will help our rate of improvement and are important tools to help us achieve our breeding goal of well adapted, high eating, quality grass-fed beef,” says Rebecca. “We are focussed on providing what the consumer wants to eat.”  Effectively they have increased the productivity of their breeding cows by introducing seasonal mating so that calves are born when rain is predicted and pasture nutrition is best to assist the lactating cow.

“Each decision we make is weighed up both financially and ecologically,” she adds. “For example we’re not rushing to restock cattle after the recent drought even though we’ve just had unexpected rain.  It’s good to let things recover.  We believe there is a huge link with profitability and good ground cover or land management.”

Chatting with David and Rebecca it becomes evident that they also value their personal time to participate in sports such as barefoot waterskiing that has taken them as far as the national titles.  They engaged a farm hand so ease of management has been a high priority while introducing their three new strategies to the business.  .

Rebecca produces her mobile phone to demonstrate.  Water storage, electric fences, and even rainfall can be monitored from afar.

It goes without saying that none of this has been easily achieved and it is no surprise that, a three year drought aside, accessing capital and managing debt have been their two major challenges.

A schoolteacher by training, Rebecca is quick to pay credit to David’s business acumen that has been fine-tuned during his previous ownership of an earthmoving business and investment in real estate.  Her skills in monitoring and report writing have become equally valuable to the business.

In dealing with debt, they have closely monitored their progress.  Regularly supplying their bank with budgets to actual results and yearly financials has helped establish a strong relationship and negotiate the tough drought years that would normally present lots of hard questions from financial partners.

“We didn’t wait to be asked,” explains Rebecca. “We knocked on the bank’s door and kept giving them information.”  She started with some solid budgeting and putting together lots of reports to help understand how they were travelling; however, this still wasn’t enough to satisfy her own need to confirm that they were making positive progress.  Benchmarking against their own performance was the next step.  “That was a good business decision,” she smiles. “Even the auditing for our organic status and monitoring of our pasture growth has been good for our business.  We know how we are performing at all times. It’s exciting.”

David believes that investing in their management skills has been a key to their success.  Initially they both did an investment course to help them negotiate their finance and invest off farm to help drought proof their business.  Then they joined a business group of like-minded property owners, Resource Consulting Services that helped them further develop their twenty year plan.

David was stunned with the power of simply putting down a dream in writing.  “I didn’t believe how suddenly a wish list can be ticked off and achieved.”

The group also helped them access resources that would have otherwise remained unknown.  By matching a Queensland Rural Adjustment Authority Loan to help fund a Natural Resource Management Project, they were able to fast track their plan.

“We went a bit bigger than we thought but it was too much of a good offer to pass up,” says David.  The result was 51 kilometres of polyurethane piping and 45 kilometres of fencing towards their rotational grazing infrastructure.

Both David and Rebecca are sitting on a number of industry and natural resource management groups.  Joining is a no brainer according to David. “Before that we were just bumping along and inventing our own stuff. You meet so many like-minded people and share many great ideas.”

Changing the perception of their industry is another personal goal they both share.

“We like to think that we are custodians of the land,” says Rebecca who has a number of family members recognised in the Stockman’s Hall of Fame. It is our aim to leave our soils in better shape than how we found them.

“Politics aside, it’s important that city people come out and visit to see exactly what we do and don’t do,” says David.  “While we respect the old ways, we are very open to trialling new ways.”

From my perspective, agriculture’s future is in good hands if this enterprising couple is any indication.

The Comiskey’s Top Business Tips:

  • Dream big and have a plan.
  • Maintain a good relationship with your bank manager, accountant and solicitor.
  • Surround yourself with like minded people.
  • Access good advice and training.
  • Be open to new ideas.

KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, author, and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

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