Innovation in Agriculture: when the fix to a historic problem helps to support a modernised industry
Albert Einstein was quoted as saying, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”.
It’s a fair statement, but what if you’re trying to solve problems you didn’t create — that simply, are a fact of life?
In this article, meet two regional innovators who looked at historic problems and are solving them with fresh eyes … and changing the agriculture sector along the way.
There’s one undeniable fact about Queensland, and it’s something that won’t change — it’s a geographically huge state.
Thanks to technology and increasing efforts to bolster rural communications, the tyranny of physical distance doesn’t impact Queenslanders quite like it did in years gone by.
But for those who live on the land, the rigours of outback cattle farming includes vast distances that are both a blessing and a curse.
For Rockhampton-based Central Queensland University (CQUniversity) Professor of Agriculture, Science and Environment, Dave Swain, there was an obvious place for technology to be used in a way not considered before when it came to mustering cattle.
“In the early to mid-2000’s the cattle industry in Queensland saw the last major innovation reach a mature state,” Professor Swain said.
“The introduction of Brahman cattle into northern Australia provided great opportunities and required researchers to work closely with industry to refine this technology. But in the last 10 years we have seen the cattle industry looking for new types of innovation to help them move forward again.
“Similar to the introduction of the Brahman, digital technologies have taken time to gain momentum and the early applications were greeted with a certain amount of scepticism. However, in the last few years the technologies have been refined and are now engendering a greater sense of optimism as we shift the thinking from what’s possible from new technologies, to what’s practical and profitable.
“Regional Queensland’s links to the cattle industry are providing a new wave of opportunity for partnerships that deliver innovation.”
Professor Swain and his team at CQUniversity created their own opportunity in 2009 when they identified the need to think differently about how research impact was delivered to the cattle industry.
“There is lots of talk about the importance of research impact, because it’s easy to say but difficult to deliver,” Professor Swain said.
“It was clear that emerging digital technologies had real potential to deliver significant benefits in the northern beef cattle industry, and it was also clear that delivering real impact would require a careful plan and a long-term approach.
“It is always easy to attract attention through hyping up new technologies, but in order to deliver impact we knew we needed to be well connected with industry needs and deliver no-fuss practical solutions.
“Building solutions that have real substance and meet people’s needs requires a well-grounded strategic plan and there is no better place than regional Queensland if you want fair dinkum feedback that cuts through any hype.
“This means you also have to be committed to the task and the opportunity to deliver on our plan was due to the commitment of CQUniversity to working hand-in-hand with regional communities to make a difference.”
The plan was built around developing a product called DataMuster.
“In the beef industry, performance of cattle is recorded maybe online once a year at mustering. But with all cattle wearing an electronic ear-tag as part of the requirements of the National Livestock Identification System, we were able to develop a sophisticated yet simple system that made use of existing farm equipment,” Professor Swain said.
DataMuster integrates multiple strands of technology located around the farm into a single monitoring and reporting platform. These include walk-over-weighing systems monitoring pregnancy status and growth rates of herds; telemetry systems which check water points, reducing labour and vehicle costs associated with bore runs; and paddock-based auto-drafters to segregate animals for sale, supplementation or health treatments.
DataMuster works in even the most remote locations, with paddock-based micro-computers conducting the heavy lifting, before transmitting micro-packets of data via the best available telecommunications system, be that mobile, wi-fi, UHF or satellite.
“DataMuster is an app that offers beef producers a precise understanding of individual animal performance from the comfort of their homestead — rather than having to actually lay eyes on the beast and assess it,” Professor Swain said.
“It allows automated, individual animal performance recording, reporting and benchmarking, as well as real-time monitoring of growth rates, reproductive performance and market readiness. This delivers reduced labour costs and improved herd productivity.”
This capability also offers both stud and commercial cattle breeders an improved ability to participate in genetic improvement programs, and innovative ways to engage in marketing.
“This app supports a shift in thinking, allowing producers to be price setters instead of price takers because they’ve got the data to back up their product,” Professor Swain said.
“Of course, these operational benefits are only part of the DataMuster story — sitting behind DataMuster is an innovative platform that will allow the development of a series of microservices. Using containerised applications connected to paddock-based edge computing, DataMuster will open up opportunities that industry hasn’t yet thought about.”
But first — having only been launched to the market in May 2018 — DataMuster is working to ensure users that they’ve built something that can be trusted.
“We have been working with a number of commercial entities and producers to develop, test and refine systems that will ensure we deliver value,” Professor Swain said.
“We believe this step of our business development is essential to ensuring we can meet the needs of large volumes of customers in the future. Come 2019 we will be in a great place to start promoting DataMuster more widely and take on increasing numbers of customers.
“In saying that, we’ve already received good interest from overseas, in particular in Argentina. The team recently travelled there to install the system on two research stations and we’re already seeing strong interest from private producers ready to place orders.”
From Central Queensland to South America, DataMuster is a proudly regional-built and based invention with global impact.
“Fostering innovation in regional Queensland is vitally important not just for the regional and rural areas, but also for the capital cities,” Professor Swain said.
“There is an implicit sense that there is a trickledown effect where innovation moves from the hub of the capital cities and out to regional communities — but the DataMuster experience has shown that this can also happen in reverse with ideas flowing from the regions for things to be done differently back in the capital cities.
“The cattle industry of rural and regional Queensland isn’t frightened to do things differently, but suggested changes needed to make sense and stand up to the rigours of outback cattle farming.
“The DataMuster journey so far has highlighted the importance of making strong industry connections to ensure the innovation makes sense and works to deliver on ground benefits.”
From cattle to cane, a small family-owned business in north Queensland has taken the same approach — working with industry connections to offer new innovations that directly benefit farmers on the ground.
Based in Ingham, LiquaForce is a fertiliser business born out of three generations of agricultural services, that has developed liquid product in competition with traditional granular fertiliser.
“Sugar cane farmers have had a lot pressure on them for a long time to actively lower nitrogen leaching rates in to Great Barrier Reef catchment areas — so we set about figuring out how to do that,” Managing Director Cameron Liddle said.
Having already identified the liquid fertiliser could be applied with more precision, LiquaForce engaged The University of Southern Queensland’s (USQ) National Centre for Agricultural Engineering to independently test their liquid products.
“Our products obviously still include necessary components such as nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium etc but we also manufacture these components with organic microbial components including the sugar by-product, molasses,” Mr Liddle explained.
“The research by USQ showed that replacing traditional granular fertiliser with liquid fertiliser that included these complex sugars reduced nitrogen leaching by up to 17 per cent.
“It also showed that the nitrogen in our liquid fertiliser was supported to remain in the soil a lot longer after application than granular components — meaning less fertiliser is needed and less ends up in water ways.”
Not content with those findings, LiquaForce has gone a step further, manufacturing its own variable rate liquid fertiliser applicator so precise amounts of fertiliser can be added to sugar cane paddocks.
“Like farms the world over, every sugar cane farm has variations in their soil types, and that means how the crop takes up fertiliser nutrients can vary from block to block,” Mr Liddle said.
“Liquid fertiliser is becoming more popular throughout Queensland and northern New South Wales cane growing regions due to its flexibility in adding precise trace elements when the crop needs it.
“The variable rate liquid applicator that we’ve built takes that level of precision one step further, based on a dual-tank liquid fertiliser application with GPS rate controllers.”
Cameron Liddle said building the application was a great example of regional innovation.
“The project brought small businesses, farmers, state and federal governments and local agronomists together all for the betterment of the Queensland sugar cane industry and the health of our Great Barrier Reef,” he said.
“We also have a tourism business that takes people out to the Great Barrier Reef and shows off our amazing backyard throughout the Hinchinbrook Shire.
“We’re committed to showing that all aspects of our family businesses are working to do everything right by the environment and to keep the amazing natural assets of north Queensland pristine for years to come — and at the same time support our farmers to be profitable and productive.
“It’s a real balance but we reckon it’s all possible through thinking outside the box and working with as many people as possible.”
LiquaForce recently took part in the State Government ‘Made In Queensland’ initiative, which aims to support the manufacturing sector to become more internationally competitive and adopt innovative processes and technologies.
“We received assistance in the form of a benchmarking exercise carried out by a manufacturing specialist,” Mr Liddle said.
“The idea was to benchmark our business against best practice firms across the world, looking at best practice systems and processes, and performance such as how well the systems are used to produce a profitable business.
‘We’ve received a report which suggests areas for improvements and highlights where we are on track.
“Taking those recommendations on board we’ll now look at how we can take this manufacturing of more variable rate applicators to the next step, whatever that might look like!”
Read the Advance Queensland Strategy to find out more about how the Queensland Government is Building Our Innovation Economy.