Designing and implementing farmer-friendly technology for the net-connected farms of the future is the goal for fourth-gen farmer Jock Graham, 2015 Nuffield Scholar and winner of the Meat and Livestock Australia award at the national 2016 Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.
“Your Holy Grail is to be tracking every animal, where they are and the health of them on the farm,” he says about the tech-enabled agribusinesses of the future.
“To go with that, you’re getting water systems that are monitored with real-time monitoring, soil moisture sensors around the farm, and soil health monitors looking at pH and a few other different things.
“There’s plenty of ways you can monitor a farm – it’s just about having those monitors accessible to a designed communication system,” Graham says.
“And make the system something that’s low-cost and very efficient, so it can be taken up by farmers.”
With a degree in agricultural economics and several years’ experience working in banks in Sydney, Graham returned to the family farm with a passion for combining technology and agriculture.
Eulonga Pastoral C, a mixed-farming enterprise near Coolac in south-western New South Wales, runs 1,000 head of Angus cattle and 5,000 Merino ewes on around 3,800 hectares of leased and owned land, some of which is used for growing crops. There’s also a sand quarry on site.
“There’s definitely a lot of opportunity to implement a sensing system so you’ve got the ability to know what’s going on all the time from any location,” Graham says.
And that’s what he’s been doing.
Smart farm software start-up
Five years ago, Graham founded tech start-up Farm Apps, which makes software for smartphones and portable devices to enhance farmer efficiency.
Under the Farm Apps banner, Graham, now the company’s managing director, trialled sensor technology, communication towers and smart apps designed with farmers’ needs in mind.
With a friend he developed F-Track Live: a ‘complete on-the-go farm management app’ that affords instant access to key real-time information – basically, everything a farm manager would usually write in his or her stock notebook – via smartphone or tablet, ‘anywhere, anytime’.
Through Farm Apps, Graham also promotes Harvest Calc, an app that helps farmers determine the most efficient settings for harvesting equipment; and uSee Remote Monitoring, sensor-based live monitoring systems that relay wi-fi signals from animal tags and fixed sensors via communication towers, allowing farmers to track livestock movements, water tank levels, weather conditions and more.
Farmer-friendly digital solutions for a fast-internet future
In 2015, Graham was awarded a prestigious Nuffield Scholarship to research ‘communication technology solutions’ for farm enterprises in the fast-internet age.
Graham’s research rationale was simple: “Better facilities will lead to automated/connected farm monitoring solutions and improved health, education and social benefits by allowing services to be streamed on-farm,” he contended at the time.
“This is an area which I have been passionate about for years.”
As a Nuffield Scholar he used his Grains Research & Development Corporation (GRDC)-funded bursary to travel the US, UK, Japan, Switzerland, Russia and France, exploring “technology solutions that improve farming efficiencies across multiple farming enterprises and … their ongoing costs and associated benefits”.
Real-time farm-wide monitoring
Back on the farm testing real-time livestock tracking and wi-fi-connected remote sensor systems, Graham is helping to lay the foundations for the fast-internet-connected farms of coming decades.
Knowledge of livestock can be improved significantly by live monitoring, which arms farmers with the real-time data they need to be able to make timely, cost-effective management decisions, he explains.
Remote live monitoring of the herd via trackers and sensors delivers data 24/7, enabling farmers to take early preventative action to combat pests and diseases, and to respond promptly to paddock maintenance issues.
It also decreases farm labour costs by reducing the time and effort required to monitor and muster animals, Graham notes.
“There is huge potential with this technology to make farming more connected, informed and efficient,” he says.
Better connectivity = farm productivity
Graham’s work is part of a new wave of agri-focused ‘smart’ technology that has proven efficiency benefits, freeing up farm workers’ time and lowering labour and input costs. Wi-fi linked sensor-based monitoring systems, however, require access to fast, reliable internet service.
Already, remote real-time monitoring technology and ‘precision agriculture’ systems are being deployed in sectors such as cotton and intensive horticulture, particularly by ‘corporate ag’. But for many Australian farmers, uptake of digital farming tools is constrained by poor internet access.
To take full advantage of all this new smart technology, farmers clearly need faster net connections and larger data download limits. Unfortunately for many in regional Australia, that level of connectivity’s still a fair way down the track.
Identifying ways that farms across Australia can connect to faster internet services with bigger, cheaper plans will lead to a more productive, technologically advanced farming sector, Graham contends.
“I see first-hand farmers struggling with their communication technology,” he said in 2015. “It is a huge disadvantage to agriculture today that needs to be improved.”
Connected farms of the future
As fast broadband internet is rolled out nationwide in coming years, Graham expects live farm monitoring systems and remotely accessible apps, along with other digitally-dependent technology, to become standard farm-management tools.
“I believe that most farming families and businesses can improve the way they utilise communication technology,” he says.
In the meantime, receiving the MLA-funded 2016 Science and Innovation Award and $22,000 bursary will help Graham build on his Nuffield findings and continue his work with farm-friendly digital technology.
Graham hopes it will bring him closer to his overarching goal: bringing the benefits of the information age to Australian farmers as they grapple with the challenges of growing food in the 21st century.
For more information on Farm Apps’ remote sensing and tracking technology and farm-management apps, check out the Farm Apps site. To contact Jock Graham, phone 0408 449844 or email Jock@farmapps.com.au.