Smart technologies in the nursery industry – What do you need?
By David Hunt, Smart Farming Project Officer
We want to hear from you about what smart farming technologies you are currently using or would like to use in your production nursery. Click on the image above to complete our short ‘Smart technology & remote sensing to improve nursery production' survey
There have been considerable advances in smart farming technologies, or Agtech, in recent years with a greater focus on integrating sensors into production systems to automate processes, and/or to provide real-time data to inform decision-making. In this article, I briefly explore some of the more useful smart technology options for production nurseries in plain English to save you time searching the internet.
Many production nurseries already have processes automated to some degree, using conveyor systems to move greenlife products or computerised irrigation controllers to irrigate crops. Other production nurseries use climate control sensors in greenhouses to control hydronic heating systems, and shade or thermal screens to maintain an optimum growing environment for their plants. However, there is a wider range of smart technologies available that can help nursery managers to remotely monitor nursery production systems. This allows for a real-time response to issues, which can reduce the time plants are stressed, ensure water quality is maintained, reduce resource usage, and reduce labour time needed to correct issues.
Types of smart technology
Water quality sensors
Most nursery managers are familiar with the basic pH and EC meters used as a general guide of water quality or growing media parameters. There are also ion specific sensors such as chlorine, nitrate, phosphate, or sulphate sensors that can identify residuals or contaminants in irrigation water. The cost of these sensors is slowly coming down, making their use more affordable than in the past.
A desktop photometer is a useful alternative to an ion specific sensor. A photometer uses a reagent to target a particular ion which is detected using a specific light frequency. These units can export a comma-separated values (CSV) file like those used in Excel spreadsheets to a computer for further analysis or saved as part of the monitoring records. Although the initial cost to purchase a photometer and reagents can be a couple of thousand dollars, the individual tests are quick, easy, and cheaper than sending samples to a laboratory for analysis.
Irrigation sensors such as pressure transducers or digital flow meters monitor irrigation systems and adjust pump speed or runtimes to ensure the system is running to its optimum. Soil moisture sensors and weight-scales monitor plant water use and adjust irrigation schedules. Leachate sensors monitor the volume of water leaching from containers, as well as the pH and EC to indicate the nutrient level being leached.
Energy monitors can be installed on pumps, potting machines, or hydronic heating systems to identify energy use and efficiency. These sensors help to identify times of peak energy use that can be used to change equipment operation times to share the load over low energy use periods, thereby reducing energy costs.
Plant growth sensors
Plant growth sensors monitor stem thickness, sap flow, or leaf wetness. They are used to adjust irrigation schedules, determine growth cycles, and harvest times, or to alert growers when plants are stressed.
Multispectral camera systems
Multi-spectral camera systems monitor plant growth and identify pest infestations. Infra-red and ultraviolet cameras monitor plant stress caused by insufficient irrigation, excessive heat, or disease damage. Remote cameras monitoring sticky traps detect early pest incursions.
Autonomous drones and robots
Autonomous drones and robots provide precision spraying of pesticides or the application of foliar sprays. Some are used to monitor plant growth and move containerised plants around a production nursery. In some crops, these devices are used to trim and shape plants, or harvest fruit and send the data back to a central computer.
Track and trace technologies such as Bar codes, RFID, QR codes and GPS tags track plants through the production cycle to record seed germination and seedling survival rates, identify client orders, streamline production processes, and provide evidence of compliance for biosecurity records and sustainable production.
The integration of these technologies can also automate the reporting process using digital remote monitoring. For example, there are several water quality, leachate and microclimate monitoring sensors installed at the Smart Production Nursery in Queensland as part of the Smart Farming Partnerships project funded under the National Landcare program, Greenlife Industry Australia (GIA) and Hort Innovation. These sensors provide real-time data to the Hitachi control tower which will automatically complete reporting templates and send them to the industry’s web-based Audit Management System for safe keeping until an audit is required. This reduces the time and cost of manually collecting the information.
The level of automation and which technology to install will vary from business to business and should be designed or chosen to suit the requirements of each business. No matter how small or large a production nursery is, there is always the possibility of installing some form of technology to improve cropping systems.
Have your say!
GIA have put together a short survey (<10 minutes) to find out what smart farming technologies you are currently using or would like to use in your production nursery.
We are interested in determining what smart farming technologies are being used within the industry and how these technologies are helping to manage production. Survey responses will inform the continued development of the Smart Farming Program, e.g., webinar development.
The Smart Farming project has been funded by Hort Innovation nursery products research and development levy and the Australian Government’s National Landcare program. Hort Innovation is the grower owned, not-for-profit research and development corporation for Australian horticulture.