Author: David Hunt, GIA Smart Farming Project Officer
The Smart Farming project is finishing – What have we learned?
The Smart Farming Partnerships project, ST19024 - Digital remote monitoring to improve horticultures environmental performance, funded under the National Landcare program, Greenlife Industry Australia (GIA) and Hort Innovation is coming to an end - so what have we learnt over the project?
Over the 3.5 years of the Smart Farming Partnerships project, project partners have established a demonstration Smart Production Nursery in the Great Barrier Reef catchment, installed a variety of remote IoT connected sensors, and helped develop a digital dashboard to display the data in a simple graphical form. The data provided has helped the Smart Production Nursery manager to assess how different production systems are performing, refine irrigation practices, and monitor environmental performance indicators.
The project has aided in the development of several real-time monitoring systems specifically designed for nursery production. For example, water quality sensors monitoring dam and runoff water quality allows the nursery manager to assess irrigation water sources and change or blend water sources to meet the nursery’s needs. Container leachate sensors identify when, and the rate of nutrients being leached during an irrigation or rain event. Automated leaching fraction sensors act as a check mechanism for irrigation schedules. Soil moisture sensors identify the water content, temperature, and electrical conductivity (EC) of the container root zone, and dendrometers show when the plants are transpiring or are in stress.
More specifically, water quality sensor has helped the nursery manager to adjust the fertigation formula to compensate for water quality and the nutrients already dissolved in the water. This is helping to reduce the volume of fertiliser used due to reduced nutrient leaching from containers. Dam water quality has increased and algal blooms have stopped due to less nutrients being flushed in to the dam.
Soil moisture sensors (SMS) have guided the adjustment of irrigation schedules and application rates to suit the plant water use, growth stages, crop maintenance practices, and the microclimate of a shadehouse. SMS are used to identify the moisture content and nutrient concentrations at different levels within the root zone so irrigation practices can be manipulated to suit the shallow roots of newly planted seedlings, or flush excess nutrients when concentrations are too high. These changes have resulted in an estimated 30% reduction in the irrigation schedule, which in turn reduces pump runtimes and energy use.
The historical data collected helps to track environmental and performance indicators which are used to develop a baseline of production performance, monitor and measure improvements, inform business decision, and identify the impact of crop maintenance practices on plant growth and resources usage. An added benefit of collecting this data is that NIASA and Ecohort reporting templates are automatically populated, which reduces labour time need for audit reporting.
These results and outcomes have been reported in a variety of communications outputs generated during the project, including eNews articles, and a series of Smart Farming training workshops held in each state. The feedback from these workshops and an industry survey was used to develop other extension materials such as eLearning courses, pod-casts, case studies, webinars, and field days. These communications materials including the latestSmart Farming Virtual Field Day video, can be found in the Technical Information section under the Smart Production Nursery category of the Australian Plant Production Standards website.
Where to next?
Although phase 1 of the project will officially finish at the end of December 2023, GIA aims to continue to support the Smart Farming initiative and the Smart Production Nursery over the next 12 months. Over this period the focus will be to develop a sustainability framework for the nursery industry as well as developing sustainability and productivity indicators that nursery managers can use to track resource use efficiencies and environmental performance. Further research into which smart technologies is best for nursery production and the benefits they can provide will also be conducted and presented via a series of communications outputs.