AgriFutures Rice Program researcher spotlight: John Hornbuckle


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John Hornbuckle

John Hornbuckle and the research team at Deakin University’s Centre for Regional and Rural Futures are looking to technology to make rice growing easier.

John’s project , Smart Irrigation control for water and labour savings in rice growing systems, is about developing an integrated smart sensing and irrigation automation system for rice growing, capable of delivering the high level control parameters needed to successfully move towards a dry rice system of production. This will assist in reducing labour requirements and making more precise water management decisions. This will help rice growers to achieve water use productivity targets that will ensure a sustainable production base both from an economic and environmental perspective.

John Hornbuckle


Why is this research project important?

The Australian rice industry is a tremendously successful regionally based, vertically integrated industry that has huge potential to continue developing high value products. However, a key input into the industry is water, which is limited and of high demand across multiple irrigation industries. In order to maintain production levels the industry will need innovation within the water space to ensure that rice production remains viable. Moving towards a ‘Dry Rice’ system, which aims to minimise water application and maximise productivity, will be critical in ensuring the industry’s future in a water constrained environment.

Why did you get involved in the project?

The project is working with two industry partners, Padman Stops (automation) and Goanna Ag (sensing), and a dynamic industry that is a cornerstone of food production for the world’s most important food crop –rice. Research that has impact is invigorating to be involved with and I believe this project has those elements in spades. I enjoy working with industry partners and seeing research put into action with farmers and this project has all those elements.

To top it off the project is bringing together interesting science and technologies like machine learning, satellite imaging, IoT sensing and smart automation, and making these accessible and usable for farmers. These are all things I enjoy.



How will this research benefit the rice industry? Are there any learnings beyond this industry?

This project aims to develop automated sensing and control for reduced water input rice farming systems. As the Australian rice industry moves to implement ‘Dry Rice’ strategies, that aim to minimise ponded water time and reduce irrigation water applied to rice crops, precision water management will become critical. Delayed permanent water, alternate wetting and drying, strategic ponding and flush finishing techniques will all require precision irrigation management to ensure that yields are maximised in a ‘Dry Rice’ system. This project is developing industry ready tools that allow the automation of rice irrigation that maximise water use productivity and reduce labour requirements, which are two increasingly important elements in rice production.

Other irrigation industries face similar issues and globally irrigated rice production systems are all looking at options to increase water use productivity. Australia is a global leader in on-farm water management and many look to it for solutions. Automated sensing and control systems for rice production have the potential to help many, not just in Australia but throughout the globe.

What’s the best piece of professional/career advice you’ve ever been given?

Never, never, never, ever give up. Originally a quote from Winston Churchill, but has been good career advice given to me by one of my mentors in my early days out of university. I think its good advice for many elements of research and also life in general. Not everything works the 1st time!

What have you learned about your industry from the growers/producers you have been involved with?

The importance of resilience, optimism, innovation and passion. I’ve been lucky to work on irrigation research across the globe and Australian irrigators have a lot to be proud of. There’s been amazing levels of improvement in water use productivity in challenging environmental and human induced circumstances. Walk onto any irrigation farm and the amount of technology, know-how and level of expertise across multiple elements of a complex business is amazing.

Smart Irrigation control for water and labour savings in rice growing systems is a sub-project as part of The Smarter Irrigation for Profit Project (Phase 2). Smarter Irrigation for Profit Project is a partnership between the major irrigation industries of cotton, dairy, sugar, rice and grains, research organisations and farmer groups. The project is funded by the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, as part of its Rural R&D for Profit program, round four.

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