Precision Agriculture in the discussions around fertilizer use in NZ

Precision Agriculture in the discussions around fertilizer use in NZ

10 March 2014

A commented summary from the 2014 Fertilizer and Lime Research Centre (FLRC) Workshop at the Fertilizer and Lime Research Centre, Massey University, Palmerston North.  Held 18-20 February 2014.
by Armin Werner, Lincoln Agritech, Lincoln (February 2014)

The 2014 workshop of the Fertilizer and Lime Research Centre (FLRC) of Massey University expanded the scope of fertilizers and their use from farm to catchment and into the involvement of the community. As a scientific meeting it gave room for reports on latest research in understanding processes of nutrient dynamics in our farms or landscapes and the impact of agricultural management. As a workshop that addressed also farmers, service staff, consultants and policy makers it discussed using latest tools for decision making on farm and in finding proper regulatory strategies.

It was interesting to realize, that many basic ideas from the concepts of precision agriculture (PA) had been embedded implicitly in most of the solutions discussed. Often it was claimed how necessary it is to correctly identify the demand for nutrients or soil amendments in time and space as well as finding the exact rate, the right place and the right way to do these applications. Although no new PA concepts had been presented, it was obvious that PA is a (often hidden) part of most discussions on solutions and advancements in applying fertilizers for plants and soils. This relates to the assessment of site characteristics, to identifying demands within and of paddocks as well as in using spatial explicit information to link the paddock or the farm with the larger, surrounding catchment.

For the important dairy production in New Zealand it was relevant to see, how often the concept of exclusively grazing and complete outdoor keeping of cows was questioned looking into a future when managing within lowered environmental limits. New concepts of varying the duration of on-paddock time of cows, partial housing or full-time housed herds had been studied on their effectiveness in reducing nutrient loads and their economic viability. In all cases it has to be assumed, that PA-techniques will be a prerequisite for economic and environmentally satisfying nutrient management, eg. with variable rate applications of slurries (effluent) and the appropriate sensing of the demand and determining the slurry quality.

Some highlights of the FLRC 2014-workshops from the perspective of PA-development:

  • Hedley, Roudier and Valette used LIDAR scanners to derive non-mapped soil characteristics. Newly avaliable high-resolution laser scanners had been used from aircrafts to map the elevation patterns of paddocks and their surrounding landscapes. This method provides completely new possibilities to derive soil characteristics, especially in the typical NZ undulated landscapes, as the resulting digital elevation model can be modelled through water- and soil movement on top of the land surface. Areas of soil removal as well as soil accumulation and similar processes for the lateral moving water in a landscape can be derived as inputs for crop- and pasture management.

  • Raine and McCarthy reported on advances in intelligent and autonomous systems in Australia to improve irrigation and fertiliser efficiency. Benchmarking the quality of irrigation systems on farm and giving farmers feedbacks can improve the general water- and energy use efficiency. The authors strengthen the demand to understand interactions in plant related processes and support ideas to improve access to detailed data (e.g. automated moisture sensor networks) and response information of the managed crops. A ‘Prescriptive Future’ is foreseen as the correct way to handle resources on farms. Adaptive (‘learning’) control strategies would then allow also managing sparse data systems.

  • Fulton introduced the pathway of the USA to double their agricultural production until 2050 and showed technological options. To support this development it is obvious, that PA-technologies will be used for management of production (crops, livestock), documenting the production processes as well as continuously verifying the used production concepts and approaches. The PA-technologies themselves will advance to support the use and the performance quality of the growingly larger equipment as spreaders, seeders and tillage equipment. Fertilizer spreaders with several hoppers for nutrient mixtures need new understanding of the ballistic characteristics of the fertilizer as well as new feedback-control systems to monitor the spread quality and adjust the system according the (mapped) demand.

  • Evand and Verhoek introduced into automated recording and documentation farm information systems that allow using the applied fertilizer amount of all individual paddocks of last year to estimate the future demand of fertilizer of that farm.

  • Yule discussed the future of PA-research from a strategic point of view. Researchers growlingly realise that they need to address the often very specific demands of farmers. These mostly decide very individually on innovations and thus need flexible support to advance them into new technologies. Instead of developing general PA-solutions that are intended to fit the needs of most of the farmers it may be more effective to enable and support the interested and engaged farmers in finding their own solutions. The appropriate research and development would engage farmers and find ways to co-operate with them in developing specific technologies for individual problems. These solutions are often very well adjusted to the specific demand of their farms but still could be an inspiration or model for others.