UNE hosts international showcase of precision agriculture

Published 14 September 2009

planeThe University of New England was the venue for an international symposium last week that reviewed current and future technologies that will help agriculture meet the world’s ever-increasing demands for food and fibre while maintaining the health of rural landscapes.

More than 130 delegates from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and China discussed the use of global positioning systems (GPS) for tracking livestock and guiding farm machinery such as tractors, new aerial and on-ground sensors for mapping soils and crops, and other advanced technologies in the field of “precision agriculture”.

The 13th Annual Symposium on Precision Agriculture in Australasia, hosted by UNE’s Precision Agriculture Research Group, was held at UNE last Thursday and Friday (10-11 September). “The symposium included two half-day workshops that allowed delegates to see -first-hand – some of the new technologies in action, and to discuss applications with both researchers and farmers,” said the Chair of the organising committee, Associate Professor David Lamb. “The response to the symposium was fantastic – we captured most people in Australia working in the field and there was a real spirit of inter-organisational cooperation in sharing ideas and aspirations.”

Two international speakers – Emeritus Professor Jim Schepers from the University of Nebraska in the United States and Professor Ke Wang from Zhejiang University in China – delivered  keynote addresses on the use of new technologies in managing the application of fertiliser.

Professor Schepers demonstrated a newly-developed sensor that records the level of organic matter in soil and thus indicates the amount of fertiliser required for a crop. He explained that this new sensor was “an attempt to fine-tune” a precision agriculture system that already used an aerial sensor to assess the need for fertiliser by monitoring the chlorophyll content and biomass of a crop. “The UNE workshop demonstration of the device was in fact the first time this sensor has been operated anywhere in the world, and it generated a lot of interest,” he said.

He spoke about the importance of these technologies in managing the application of fertiliser so as to minimise nitrate levels in groundwater.

Professor Wang outlined developments in the use of remote sensing and communication technologies to facilitate the interaction of farmers and scientists in crop management in China.

Central to this interaction, he explained, is the mobile phone, with farmers sending photographs of their fields to scientists, and the scientists using these and other data in advising the farmers on procedures such as fertiliser application.

“Information technology can play a big role in agricultural management,” Professor Wang said, adding that the use of the new system had already begun in Zhejiang Province.

UNE’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Alan Pettigrew, officially opened the symposium, and the Chancellor, Dr Richard Torbay, officially closed it. “UNE is particularly proud to have hosted this symposium,” Dr Torbay said, emphasising UNE’s leading role – exemplified by its Precision Agriculture Research Group – in rural research.

Clicking on the image displayed here, taken at a field workshop during the symposium, reveals a photograph of (from left) Emeritus Professor Jim Schepers, Dr Richard Torbay, Professor Ke Wang, and Associate Professor David Lamb.