Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Think global

A Nuffield scholar is back in New Zealand appreciating afresh that this is indeed one lucky country. Sandra Taylor reports. Michael Tayler can rattle off some pretty frightening statistics. For instance, an English professor told him that due to exponential increases in modern medicine the first person who will live to the age of 200 has already been born and the global population is increasing by an incredible 160,000 every day. This means that there are over one million more people on the planet every seven days. “When you think about that number – it’s increasing by more than New Zealand’s total population every month.” If all forecasts are right, by 2050 the world population will sit at nine billion people, all of whom need feeding from increasingly limited land and water resources. It is within this global context that Tayler, an arable farmer and Nuffield scholar from Temuka, has been looking at where the opportunities lie for an agricultural exporter such as NZ, a country seemingly blessed with a great climate, good soils, sound infrastructure, normally plentiful water resources, a stable government and a reliable legal system. As Michael points out, “we can farm with confidence because unlike some countries we know we are not going to have our farm confiscated from us”. Last year, as part of his Nuffield scholarship, which looked at new technologies in the arable industry which would enable farmers to increase yields to feed a growing global population, Michael travelled extensively.

Nuffield scholar Michael Tayler with his family. From left, Sam, Sally and Henry. Their other son William is at school.

The other technology which can lift yields, and one more immediately relevant for Michael’s own family farming arable operation, is precision agriculture.

He defines precision agriculture as a system that allows the fine-tuning of crop management.

“It means farmers can record and analyse information about the variability of soil and crop conditions in small precise areas within a field.”

It allows farmers to apply only what is really necessary in a small area, potentially reducing chemical and fertiliser use, with financial and environmental benefits.

Michael explains that precision agriculture covers four main areas: Global Positioning System (GPS), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), variable rate technology, and remote sensing for data collection.

The first GPS satellite was launched in 1978. It was initially designed for the US military to improve their tactical ability but was sanctioned for civilian use in 1983. GPS are now ubiquitous as they have become more reliable, accurate and easy to use.

GIS software takes information such as yield information from measuring devices on harvesting equipment and produces yield maps. These maps highlight limiting factors in a paddock and management and inputs can be adjusted accordingly.

Variable rate technology incorporates a GPS receiver and GIS software to allow farmers to strategically apply inputs to different parts of a paddock. Remote sensing data and images allow farmers to monitor the health and condition of their crops using multi-spectral remote sensing that can detect reflected light not visible to the naked eye.

Stressed plants reflect various wavelengths of light that are different from healthy plants. Being able to detect areas of plant stress before they become visible allows farmers to take action and mitigate the problem.

“The precision agriculture industry is still young and maturing and a lot of the technology has to improve and develop, not only increasing reliability but ease of use as well.”

While all of these are technologies have been adopted by the arable industry in this country, Michael says soil quality and variation is one of the most significant factors affecting crop yields.

Soil tests and blanket nutrient application is commonly used to correct soil variation.

Studies show the practice of manually testing one to two samples a hectare to be highly inaccurate across the whole field due to the high variations between those samples. Taking the 20-40 samples needed a hectare to get the desired accuracy is too time-consuming and costly.

Michael says having the capability to accurately map soil variability has been challenging farmers for many years. 

Technology 

Recently a Kansas-based agricultural company, Veris Technologies, developed the world’s first on-the go real-time soil sampler. This device has a collection of soil sensors that allows it to measure soil organic matter (OM), soil pH, and the electrical conductivity of the soil simultaneously.

In 1997, Veris Technologies developed the Veris 3100, a machine that could measure soil electrical conductivity on-the-go. Since then they have produced many more sensor models to be added, including some to record pH and organic matter.

The Veris 3150 MSP3 measures three different properties- pH, organic matter and electrical conductivity of the soil. Trials measuring the accuracy of the Veris with soil laboratory tests measuring soil pH showed a close correlation between the Veris system and standard soil tests.

Michael admits this technology is far from being fully understood and has room to develop, but he believes it does show the future capability of precision agriculture.

 “As the importance of understanding soil properties grows, as does the need to be able to sustainably manage inputs and comply with environmental regulatory bodies, demand for technology like the Veris range of on-the-go soil samples will increase.”

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