Agriculture may have much to gain from the fast evolving digital technology age, but farmers won’t get too excited about advances in information and communications technology (ICT) unless they see an immediate profitable advantage.
Even if they are attracted to the technology, chances are they won’t have adequate connectivity to operate it effectively on much of their farm.
That’s the sort of sobering feedback emerging from a nationwide survey of farmers by the Australian Bureau of Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES).
It estimates ITC gear makes up a paltry three per cent of the total asset value of plant and equipment on Australian farms – or less than 0.2pc of an average farmer’s total capital investment, including land.
It found the most expensive commitment farmers were likely to make to ITC assets was global positioning system (GPS) technology in a tractor or header on a grain growing property.
Grain growers led the pack when it came to using ITC or agtech innovations, spending about $33,000 on technology assets, but primarily only where it involved auto-steer technology.
“If they can see an immediate advantage in technology which will be quick to adapt to their farm and won’t require much learning, farmers are more likely to use it,” said ABARES’ chief commodity analyst, Peter Gooday.
There may be a role for industry and technology providers to work more closely in delivering education and information to give farmers the confidence and skills to adopt ITC
He told this week’s Outlook 2018 conference, while GPS-guided tractors were a good example of what was being adopted, GPS-powered variable rate fertiliser or seeding gear was far less popular.
Mr Gooday said cost was not an obvious deterrent in investing in new technology, but confidence in being able to make full use of the gear or data was an important factor.
So, too, was connectivity, or lack of it.
About 45 per cent of broadacre farmers had no internet coverage on much of their farms, while in general on Australian farms only half of the land area has access to mobile phone data or wi-fi.
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The survey of 2200 farmers found while 90pc had computers (up form 30pc back in 1998), larger farms were more likely to use ITC to assist their daily operations, if they could “connect” and if they were confident about having the skills needed.
Livestock producers and vegetable farmers invested the least in technology assets, although dairy farms and other more intensive livestock operations were likely to be using it for electronic identification, feed ration allocations and to track stock.
The highest proportion of farmers without a farm computer were vegetable producers.
Mr Gooday said based on gains made in the cropping sector, farmers appeared more likely to get involved if their agronomists or other advisors were part of the ride.
“There may be a role for industry and technology providers to work more closely in delivering education and information to give farmers the confidence and skills to adopt ITC,” he said.
The need for an obvious practical, cost saving advantage was also critical - a point addressed by Tom Rayner, with new South Austalian satellite technology company, Myriota, which uses basic, low cost “internet of things” devices to connect farmers with metering equipment in remote parts of their farm.
Trials by Myriota proved so popular with farmers they were reluctant to give the devices back.
A 22 millimetre by 90mm card provides “the electronics” which links a farmer’s smartphone or office computer to water tanks and troughs, flow meters, soil moisture probes, via a series of low cost ($1.5 million) satellites the size of wine bottles orbiting earth.
About 70pc of Australia’s land mass has no internet coverage,”
The 24-byte, low-power signals transmitted from the field are likely to each cost producers about $50 to buy and $5 a month to maintain when they are commercialised this year.
“About 70pc of Australia’s land mass has no internet coverage,” said Mr Rayner, the business development executive with Myriota, a privatised technology business spun out of the University of South Australia.
He said while some form of internet connectivity was essential for farms, producers did not necessarily need to have the broadband capacity to watch Netflix on 75pc of their property.
However, narrow band applications could provide big productivity gains at low cost.
One farmer whose farm bores were monitored by Myriota’s technology last year had been able to check his watering points from his mobile phone while on holiday in a bar in Bali.
It was the easiest bore run he’d ever done.