Wednesday 01 April 2015

CSIRO helps ‘smart farms’ use digital technology


In a unique collaboration between research and farming, Australian scientists are listening to oyster hearts and monitoring cows online.

It’s all part of plans to dramatically increase food production, with early findings showing yields could double in size.

Domestic and overseas demand for Australian-grown food is expected to surge in coming years, with predictions in the recent National Food Plan that Asia will drive a 75 per cent rise in consumption by 2050.

The United Nations warned in May of a worsening food shortage, prompted in part by challenges such as land shortage and climate change.

At the same time Australia’s  peak science organisation, the CSIRO believes new technology can help Australian farmers meet rocketing demand both at home and overseas.

“We believe we can lift the productivity of the paddock enormously,” CSIRO’s Centre for Broadband Innovation director Colin Griffith said recently.

Since 2011, the CSIRO has been conducting experiments on Australian farms, using fast internet-enabled gadgets to monitor everything from cattle movements and soil moisture to solar radiation.

Findings from the trials were released recently in a white paper at the Digital Rural Futures Conference in Armidale.

Preliminary results suggest cotton farmers using this technology almost doubled their yields.

Crop, pasture, livestock health and quality were all increased significantly too.

The trials have been carried out three regions.

In Armidale, north New South Wales, the CSIRO and University of New England set up a 2800 hectare cattle and merino wool ‘smart farm’.

It has hundreds of digital sensors and cameras on the land, feeding data back to a central computer programme advising when to water, when to plant and when to move livestock.

Cattle and sheep have been fitted with wireless tags, allowing farmers to monitor their precise movements via the internet, with SMS alerts sent to their phones if animals graze, give birth or are attacked.

In Tasmania, CSIRO scientists are monitoring oyster heartbeats and water quality on fish farms.

By doing so they can tell if the oysters are stressed, indicating changes in water purity, salinity or temperature, all potentially disastrous for bivalve health.

A ‘digital homestead’ is in operation in Townsville, north Queensland, with technology similar to the Armidale smart farm.

Hollie Baillieu, chairman of the National Farmers’ Federation 2050 Committee backed the findings and said technology should also boost farmers’ profit

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