Unlocking the economic potential of digital agriculture

There has been much recent hype about Australian agriculture entering a golden era of prosperity. There is certainly reason to be bullish. Record harvests, strong prices for many commodities, and favourable spring conditions in 2016 lifted farm confidence and saw the industry’s gross value of production surge past $60 billion for the first time. Looking forward, one of the keys to the industry’s long-term competitiveness, productivity, and profitability will be its ability to seize the opportunities associated with digital agriculture.

The Australian Farm Institute (AFI) is continuing its work on big data with a focus on identifying cases where the use of digital agriculture is likely to have high-impact profitability and productivity benefits. AFI is undertaking a detailed analysis of the current and future economic benefits of digital agriculture in Australia, examining the projected use and benefits to farm business decision-making, risk management and profitability. This work is forming part of the Accelerating Precision Agriculture to Decision Agriculture (P2D) project, a partnership that now includes all 15 Australian rural research and development corporations (RDCs) as well as other research organisations. (For more information please visit: www.farminstitute.org.au/P2Dproject)

Technological advances have dramatically reduced the costs of farm data collection. Over the past two decades there have been significant developments in machinery GPS and operating information, harvester yield monitors, automated weather monitoring technology, telemetric irrigation control systems, crop and pasture monitoring data from drones or satellites, detailed digital soil maps and soil test data, electronic livestock identification and performance monitors, and robotic dairy systems. Translating the basic raw data collected from these technologies into improved decision-making remains a much bigger and elusive challenge.

AFI’s work will include evaluating the options, merits and risks of business models to take advantage of digital technologies. It is likely that new business models will be associated with the products and services of decision agriculture, whether they are delivered by small start-ups, large companies, research agencies or governments.

Big data has already changed many sectors of the economy, including retail and financial services. The ‘digital disruption’ that new technologies and business models can bring will likely have major impacts on agriculture. For farmers, the drivers of change will come from the availability of new production technologies and decision-support tools as well as new requirements up the value chain. One of the key objectives of the project is to help define the value proposition for farmers to engage with digital agriculture, as well as the benefits to the wider Australian economy.

To date, the benefits of analysed data collected from precision agriculture technologies have been fragmented and mostly confined to the US corn-belt. AFI’s work will consider case studies from the US, while exploring the factors that will enable Australian innovations. Studies conducted by other research organisations as part of the P2D project will explore key barriers to digital agriculture adoption identified by AFI’s 2016 report: The implications of digital agriculture and big data for Australian agriculture including:

  • the availability of appropriate data
  • the availability of decision-support systems that can utilise that data
  • data connectivity
  • trust in systems and protocols used to manage digital information.

AFI’s research will deliver recommendations to RDCs to help ensure levies are strategically leveraged to support cross industry collaboration and the commercial application of big data in agriculture. A series of workshops for the cotton, grain, sugar, wine, forestry, dairy and meat industries will be held in 2017. 

Image:  CAFNR