Precision Agriculture should be a mindset to improve productivity rather than about acquiring new tools and gadgets, according to a prominent New Zealand farmer.
Hugh Ritchie, Otane, was the keynote speaker at the recent Society of Precision Agriculture Expo in Naracoorte, and said profits drove decisions.
“We have to use these tools to the best of our ability. We can’t just do it because it looks good or we like playing with them,” he said. “It actually has to make a return.”
Mr Ritchie began his journey 17 years ago with strip tillage systems for maize, sweetcorn, beans and squash, after undertaking a Nuffield scholarship.
Since then he has recontoured ground using GPS for improved drainage, and uses banded spraying and yield maps where possible.
Drumpeel Farms on the North Island comprises 2000 hectares, with about 800ha continuously cropped for broadacre and vegetable crops. Livestock are run on another property.
Mr Ritchie says variable rate irrigation has been a huge advantage in improving their water use efficiency, enabling them to reduce watering overlap.
“We can run the pivot from 70 litres a second to 40L/second when we have caught up with the water and we can turn sections off on laneways,” he said.
Fine-tuning the nutrition in their beef finishing system and using electronic tags to monitor weight gains has also boosted their bottom line.
“By adjusting crude protein by two per cent we went from a loss of $1.70 a head to profit $2.70/day (in our beef bulls) and from gaining 0.3 kilograms a day to 1.9kg/day liveweight.”
With all precision agriculture software, Mr Ritchie said it was important the data could be delivered to the user in real-time, rather than requiring ground truthing.
An exciting development in NZ is hyperspectral imaging on hilly country being developed by the Centre of Precision Agriculture at Massey University.
The Fenix Airborne Sensor is mounted on a Cessna aircraft and can sense up to 1000 hectares an hour, collecting 4.5 million data points a hectare.
Each pixel in the image has 448 layers of information from the visual, short wave and near infrared spectrums which can be used to produce 3D maps for key nutrients, energy and dry matter concentrations.
Mr Ritchie says it will enable optimal fertiliser applications down to the square metre.
“There is the potential to use it on both sides of the Tasman – this will drive our businesses very fast when we can get real-time data,” he said.
In the future he hopes to also see accurate in-crop sensors developed.