Every time someone asks me what I do for a living and I mention ‘AgTech’, ‘Digital Ag’ or that we build software for farmers, the response, 9/10, is:
“Oh you must work with drones! Drones are the answer for ag, right?!”
My response, after holding my breath for a few seconds while my blood pressure rises, is:
“Sure, drones have their place but, firstly we build software, and secondly, let’s take a step back and understand what problems need solving and then look at the tools for the job.”
The conversation then goes on a journey, and is either very short or very long depending on who asks the question….
In fairness, you can’t be surprised most of the hype around AgTech is focused on IoT or drones on farm, when research from the likes of Goldman Sachs sees drones “evolving into a $100 billion market by 2020.” But the reality is, the technology offerings in the ag space are varied – and so is the value delivered!
Every farming practice is unique; each operation has its own business goals, pain points and requirements. This can be driven by a myriad of things including rainfall, remoteness, size, enterprise, market access, risk, financial leverage, ownership structure etc, etc.
I’ve previously written about innovation in pastoral properties from my own experiences on our family station, Wirrealpa, in northern South Australia. How AgTech might solve our immediate pain points would be very different to the solutions it offers for the bulk of AgriWebb’s customer base. The three biggest pain points across our 400,000 acres are:
- Checking stock waters
This is a two-day drive over rugged tracks or two hours in the Cessna: both very expensive. Do we have an AgTech solution in place? No, we don’t due to the remoteness and the lack of connectivity. Are we close to having a solution? Yes, absolutely! Remote monitoring solutions are constantly improving, with companies such as Farmbot, Odyssey Sensors ,Rayven
and The Yield making headway in both hardware and connectivity. Let’s not forget though, we need more than a sensor telling us the water levels of tanks and troughs. We need a visual to ensure nothing is broken, that a sheep isn’t upside down in a trough or stuck in a fence (yes, this happens all too often). The sensors also need to withstand extremely harsh conditions – this year temperatures on our station reached 49 degrees Celsius, in the shade! That’s a powerful reminder that checking stock waters is critically important in summer.
- Knowing where stock are
This might sound funny, but you could drive around our biggest paddock (210 square kilometres) for days without seeing an animal… so again, we need the Cessna and motorbikes to find and muster stock. My Dad said to me 10 years ago:
“One day we’ll have a screen on the handlebars of the motorbike which will show us where all the stock are and we can ride around and muster them.”
While this hasn’t happened yet, technology is getting closer to letting us know exactly where each animal is through GPS ear tags that track location along with movements, health and other factors. Virtual fencing is also advancing with promise
– perhaps there is a day where humans will not enter a paddock to muster stock. Major barriers that need overcoming are distance, connectivity, battery life, durability and cost. But I do believe we will get there in one shape or another.
I think everyone knows the answer here. Nope, tech isn’t going to solve this one any time soon. But without getting into a debate over climate change – don’t get me started on that topic – technology has a role to play. Tech can allow farmers to mitigate the impact of drought through better planning and decision-making before it’s too late. It can also help when they’re getting out of drought, facing decisions around investing capital in purchasing/agisting stock, pasture improvements etc.
So, which technologies are ready to deploy today, on which type of farm, and will the farmer truly see the value? How do farmers separate the wheat from the chaff, and leverage the right technologies to improve operations?
As with all agricultural tools there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but if we’re honest about the industry as a whole, one thing’s clear: we’re starting from a low base. The agricultural industry has been marked as the least digitised industry in the world. The good news is, this presents us with a huge opportunity, as we have the most to gain! Game on!
While it’s true 100% digitisation isn’t the benchmark for success, minimising input costs and maximising production are tangible benefits of digitalisation. Digital technology can free farmers from many rudimentary tasks, letting them concentrate on more targeted activities. This boosts on-farm efficiency and gives farmers valuable time to do what really matters to them.
We’ve put together an industry update below that gives an insight into the wide variety of tech currently on offer for farmers.
Technology That Does "Everything"
Today, Australian farms are employing some digital technology, but they don’t always leverage these tools to their maximum benefit.
I hear on a regular basis from farmers (and it appears the Agthentic team also shed light on this topic), comments such as:
“I need a platform that does everything for me, from record keeping to accounting, to hardware integration, to water monitoring. When a tool does that, I will buy it!”
My favourite comment a few years ago was:
“I want a pill that a cow can swallow that will give me its location and health metrics. Until then, I am not interested in technology…” (I note that this was from a very prominent and successful farmer who is a forward thinker… but one step at a time old boy, one step at a time.)
It’s dangerous to think that one provider will solve all these problems. To be honest, it’s simply impossible, for two reasons:
- You can’t be good at everything, so it’s in farmers’ best interest for companies to focus on what they are good at. You don’t see an Olympic athlete win a gold medal in every single event…
- The development of quality software takes millions of dollars. Leaving one company to take this on means decades of research or relying on the very deep pockets of a large corporation. In the end, there won’t be enough focus and there’s a big chance the value creation will be missed (either from a simplified user experience perspective or not getting to the core problem).
The real solution lies in collaboration and integration, with innovative tech companies working together on ‘plug and play’ tools that can be configured to solve broader operational needs. The good news is, this is happening already with compelling results. One provider outside of ag that has done this with overwhelming success is Xero in the accounting sector.
The Latest Agricultural Technologies
Now let’s take a look at some AgTech and Digital Ag tools currently available to farmers:
- Internet of Things (IOT)
This tech is already enhancing both the performance and quality of life on farms in Tasmania. Broadacre farmers know how it feels to be tied to irrigation schedules. With IoT, irrigation systems can be turned on and monitored remotely, solving the labour shortage issue and reducing huge costs.
- Precision Agriculture
Precision agriculture is another buzzword that’s thrown around alongside AgTech and Digital Ag. However, if there was ever a segment of the AgTech market that proves these technologies are delivering value, Precision Ag might just be it. Take a typical John Deere tractor on offer these days, compared with its counterpart of even 10 years ago. Advancements like auto steer, GPS and precision seeding, spraying and harvesting mean the value derived on farm from today’s tractor is immense. The investment into Precision Ag from companies like John Deere has paved the way for others to sit up, take notice and develop the technologies behind variable spray applications, yield mappings and plenty more.
- Remote Sensing
Remote sensing is a lot like IoT in that it can save hours upon hours of boots on the ground, making it possible to check on field conditions without having to leave the house. Tie this technology into data analytics software, and your farm will begin to monitor and report on itself, as well as offer consultation on best management practices.
- Farm Management Software
Many reputable platforms are available today, with many more popping up due to the increasing demand for quality solutions that actually drive value. Farm management software needs to allow simple data collection and then be able to make use of that data by delivering decision-making tools and insights – not just become another data graveyard (I heard this phrase from a Gippsland farmer and loved it – so true!). In a perfect world on my farm, I’d want to wake up over a morning coffee and gain insights such as:
- Critical daily and weekly work items linked to my annual plan
- What my staff have completed and what is still outstanding
- Local weather
- Relevant livestock prices
- Trending conditions on my farm taking into account feed on offer availability and stocking rotations
- How my performance metrics compare to my peers in my area.
The good technology providers will listen to producers, and consistently update features to meet these needs.
Digitising farm management can facilitate smooth operations by granting greater access to insights contained within neatly stored records – records that may have, before simple farm management software tools, been lost as a notebook gets put through the wash.
When farm data is captured efficiently and cleanly the data produced can be, and is now being, turned into valuable insights. Value is delivered in three broad areas:
Decisions that used to require hours of digging through spreadsheets or simply going by ‘gut feel’ can be confidently made while standing in the paddock.
You have the ability to analyse, plan and make decisions backed by data, which also includes satisfying any audit/compliance requirements.
Setting the farming business up for succession planning is so important but often a lot of farming and business knowledge isn’t transferred effectively. Digitising farm management offers a solution to this problem.
So, is the world of AgTech and Digital Ag going to shift the needle for our industry? Is it all just hype? Call it what you want, but one thing is certain: if farmers and the wider ag community don’t start adopting technology to solve our immediate pain points and help us future-proof, in an ever-changing landscape, we will be left behind. Let’s not be another Blockbuster.