Research Report:
The implications of digital agriculture and big data for Australian agriculture

Agriculture has experienced two major revolutions over the past century. The first was the mechanical revolution that occurred in the years between the first and second world wars, during which time horsepower was replaced by mechanical power, with dramatic improvements in productivity. The second was the scientific revolution (often referred to as the green revolution) which occurred over the period from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, and involved the application of well-developed science to the sector, again resulting in significant productivity increases.

It is probably reasonable to argue that agriculture is now undergoing its third major revolution, the digital agriculture revolution. This revolution has been made possible as a result of the dramatic reduction that has occurred in the cost of digital and computer technology, and the adaption of this technology in farm implements and farm monitoring applications.

The research report represents 12 months of investigation into digital technologies and big data for agriculture.

The research investigated how digital technologies being used in agriculture are generating large amounts of data sufficient for ‘big data’ analytics. In the early 1990s global positioning systems (GPS) technology enabled the accurate positioning and automatic guidance of agricultural implements. Rather than just positioning and controlling agricultural implements, digital agriculture relies on the recording of geolocated data tied to agricultural operations.

While there has been more development to date of digital agriculture in the cropping sector, there are rapidly increasing applications in the livestock, horticultural and viticultural sectors. In all examples the main benefit of digital agriculture is the ability to make informed management decisions based on quantitative data at a much higher level of precision than was previously possible.

The use of digital agriculture systems enables farmers to change from paddock and herd average management, to square metre and individual animal management, with reported subsequent increases in farm productivity. Gains of the order of 10% to 15% have been recorded in cropping systems.

The research addresses questions that are being asked globally about ownership of the vast amounts of data that are being collected by digital agriculture.

In a very rapidly developing environment, there is much uncertainty about the rules that govern how the new digital environment should operate. Codes of practice for data use and ownership are detailed in this report. The codes provide workable arrangements which are not overly restrictive for service providers, and which give sufficient confidence to farmers.

For the benefits of digital agriculture to be realised in the form of increased productivity, huge amounts of data need to be captured, transferred and analysed. The research looked at how this process occurred in the United States (US) and details some of the impediments currently limiting the same processes occurring in Australia.  

Data transfer in the US is aided by  well-developed telecommunications infrastructure, which is lacking in Australia. Poor mobile communications networks and data transfer ability in Australia in some cases makes digital agriculture technologies expensive and practically unusable.

Open data platforms have been embraced in the US which mean that farmers can transfer data between implements and software platforms with very little loss of functionality. Open data platforms have also encouraged a competitive environment in data storage and management, leading to innovative new applications. These same approaches have not yet been adopted in Australia.

While Australian agriculture will undoubtedly benefit from technology spill over, some underpinning elements of the US system, such as detailed soil maps and high intensity weather data, are not available in Australia and will require dedicated resourcing and research.

The research concludes that digital agriculture and big data for agriculture holds enormous promise for Australian agriculture.

Nine recommendations for policy development to enhance the uptake of digital agriculture technologies are included.

The implications of digital agriculture and big data for Australian agriculture is now available to purchase online. Institute members can download the report from the Members' Library; non-members can purchase copies for $77.

Image:  Valley Irrigation