The grains sector has long been a vanguard of innovation in our ag sector, so in celebration of Whole Grain Week (21-27 June), we spoke to GrainGrowers CEO David McKeon about what’s on the horizon for some of our most tech-forward farmers.

AgTech Finder:The grains industry has always been the tip of the spear when it came to technology on farms – in the 90s you embraced precision ag and these days more than 70% of growers are using GPS enabled tech. How are grain growers leading the way with tech today?

David McKeon: Grain farmers across Australia have always been intrigued and interested in what’s next and whether there is a better way to do things. We’re always keen to experiment and try new things and if those processes can clearly demonstrate a return for the farmer, then we see a rapid uptake of that technology.

If you look at how we crop today as opposed to 10-20 years ago, it’s completely different. Precision agriculture is just reflective of how we farm in Australia as opposed to a niche activity. The vast majority of farmers are undertaking conservation through minimal tilling, conservation of soil, utilising GPS and streamline equipment and a whole range of tech to be really precise with our applications. And then aim to derive as much as possible from our most critical resource – water. Making every drop count is the aim of every great farmer, and that’s what we’ve excelled at in recent years.

What kind of agtech is most popular with grain growers today?

If you look at crops in dry years like 2018 and 19 in eastern Australia, there were a lot of low rainfall areas, but we still saw farmers producing crops, and that’s been a result of both genetics and decision making backed up by data. Being able to implement that knowledge through innovative farming machines and equipment, whether that’s pre-crop through green-seeker technology on the spray rig, using precision application of fertiliser during the sewing period, or measuring the outcomes from the back of the header helps to ensure we make well-informed decisions.

And of course, a lot of farmers are using GPS yield mapping to make live decisions, or decisions mid-season, but we’re still seeing a large cohort of farmers who are collecting data but not yet implementing that in the field.

Looking at what’s available on the market, what agtech would growers like to embrace, and what’s the barrier to taking up those products?

The interoperability of many devices and solutions is really limited by our telecom capacity. Farmers manage their business out in the paddock, not from an office in the CBD. So, the ability to get reliable, consistent, and high-speed mobile coverage in regional areas is limiting our uptake significantly.

In the CRDC Precision to Decision report they suggested that full uptake of agtech in the grains industry alone is potentially worth an extra $6 billion in value. We could add to that across key themes like automation, genetic grains, and decision improvements. There’s an incredible quantum of value that we could see if we could overcome our connectivity challenges.

I’ll add that, importantly, many Australians think that connectivity means convenience, but for rural Australia connectivity is actually about the opportunity for productivity and the safety of farmers out in paddocks.

Looking to the future, what do you think the industry is on track to embrace in the next five years?

Some of the early R&D of automation is very exciting. Farmers are watching that space very, very closely to see how far away commercial solutions for more autonomous farming in Australia might be. Whether that’s entirely autonomous spray rigs, spreaders, tractors or headers, that’s a really thrilling space that farmers are watching closely. Swarm Farm up in central QLD is a very exciting solution, for example. They’re doing it differently with a range of smaller machines rather than what people might visualise today with one large machine.

The limited access to overseas labour we’re experiencing right now is really driving that interest and could potentially accelerate uptake in the near future.

Is there any tech out there that growers feel is ‘all hype’?

Rather than some tech being overhyped, I think some tech is under-appreciated. For example, while there is extreme interest out there in drone technology, we could be looking to satellites for a more appropriate solution. There are great drone companies doing great stuff, they are certainly the right tool for some tasks. But satellites are a massively untapped resource for agriculture.

Are AgTech providers giving grain growers the technology and level of service that they need? What could they do better?

Aussie farmers will always want access to the best tech. After all, the best farmers in the world should be at the head of the line for the best solutions. But the challenge I continue to hear from farmers is the ability to get the right service and build the right solution on farm. Building a solution using a range of agtech providers, and then servicing or trouble-shooting those solutions individually, is challenging for farmers who already run a complex business.

If the 90’s were the decade of measurement and mapping, the 2000’s & 2010’s were all about connectivity, are the 2020’s all about digital integration? What is the main theme you’re seeing when it comes to technology across the sector today?

Data and digitisation is certainly up there – but it’s bringing it all together with whole-of farm solutions and the automation of machinery (and other processes) which presents the biggest opportunity. It’s not just about integrating your different data flows; it’s about bringing them all together with automation.

GrainGrowers CEO David McKeon