Charles Sturt University
Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation

How do we reliably use spatial data to improve farm management?

Collecting data is one thing, finding the best way to use it to improve decision making on-farm is another.

photo of Jon MedwayFor Graham Centre senior research fellow- spatial agriculture, Mr Jon Medway that challenge has been the focus of his work for more than 20 years but he’s still excited by the possibilities for agriculture.

In this interview Mr Medway explains how he came to be interested in spatial agriculture and how his new role at the Graham Centre aims to develop research and collaboration opportunities.

I grew up on a family farm on the Liverpool Plains in Northern NSW attending Farrer Ag High before doing my Agriculture degree at Charles Sturt in the mid 1980s. After a few years in corporate farming I returned to Charles Sturt as a research officer at the Farrer Centre working with a local farmer group (FM500) comparing farming systems and demonstrating the role of objective monitoring for improved crop management.

This evolved to include the investigation of spatial variability through the use of remote sensing, soil surveying and yield mapping.

In 2000 I established a spatial data consultancy with another Charles Sturt colleague. Over its 19 years of operation I worked on over 2500 projects across Australia and internationally providing services to family and corporate farms, industry, research organisations and government agencies.

Highlights include working on a large private aid project in Mozambique, a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation project for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Bangladesh and India,  and more recently the development of a spatial data integration system for cropping and livestock producer clients.

Why are you interested in this area of agriculture?

I have always liked geography and mapping and my interest in spatial agriculture was an obvious extension of that. It was sparked by my involvement with collecting the first winter crop yield data in Southern NSW in 1996 that showed a yield range from two tonne per hectare to nine tonne per hectare /ha to 9/ha in a local wheat paddock.

I’d spent many years crop monitoring and collecting soil samples, together with years of tractor and harvester operation. Those first yield maps, and the seemingly obvious potential to identify and understand the causes of spatial variability and options to improve management, presented me with a new challenge that remains ongoing today, 23 years later.

What do you see as key opportunities for growers going forward?

The key opportunities for growers going forward are largely the same as they were in 1996, how do we reliably use spatial data to improve management.

For more than 20 years, as simple and reliable applications of spatial data beyond logistical improvements proved elusive, the focus of spatial agriculture has, in hindsight, focused on collecting rather than using data. It is only in recent years that robust applications focused around input and productivity management have begun to emerge and be adopted.

What are the challenges that need to be overcome- and how is research likely to play a role in addressing that?

The greatest challenges relate to the processes and capacity to reliably integrate the diverse range of crop, soil, climate and management information that is now widely available, into a robust decision support system that can cater to the management needs of individual farmers, farms and paddocks.

The diversity and amount of this information is likely to require a much greater reliance on maths and computing expertise than many conventional agronomic challenges, so increased collaboration with researchers outside of traditional networks.

What are your priorities in your new role at the Graham Centre?

My role is to build the capacity of the Graham Centre to increase activity in this area and develop a longer term research program plan.

I’m also working with the Charles Sturt farm, where the manager James Stephens is very keen to ensure that the farm is utilising the full range of spatial technologies and engaging students at every opportunity to use the farm as a learning resource.

Together with the School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences and School of Agricultural and Wine Sciences we are looking to develop a ‘digital twin’ of the farm for implementation of a Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality program to further hence the research and educational use of the farm resource.

In the first instance this will involve the development of an online GIS portal to display/access;

  • daily satellite imagery now being collected of the farm
  • soil and weather data
  • pasture biomass measurements
  • farm management details
  • spatially based ongoing research information such as data from the soon to be utilised GPS livestock collars.

Beyond the Charles Sturt farm we’re looking to work with local producers and consultants to investigate the incredible volume of data sitting unprocessed in tractors, harvesters, sprayers and offices across the region. The aim is to assess the extent and impact of spatial variability for both individual farm and wider regional applications.

The engagement with students is another priority to highlight potential opportunities for involvement with spatial and digital agriculture technologies. This will be essential to ensure the necessary supply of skilled people for both research and industry needs.

 

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