Practical digital agronomy tools boost productivity for rice growers

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A new suite of digital agronomy tools to improve productivity and water use efficiency could revolutionise Australia’s rice industry, with growers putting the technology to the test in the last three years.

A new suite of digital agronomy tools to improve productivity and water use efficiency could revolutionise Australia’s rice industry, with growers putting the technology to the test in the last three years.

The tools tackle four critical areas for improving rice growing including soil variability, crop variability, nitrogen application and harvest timing. The industry-first research project was led by DataFarming and funded by AgriFutures Australia’s Rice Program. The program invests in research, development and extension to improve the productivity, profitability and sustainability of the Australian rice industry and move the industry towards its achieve its water productivity target of 1.5 tonnes of rice produced on average per megalitre of water.

AgriFutures Manager, Levied and Emerging Industries (Rice) Tich Pfumayaramba said that variability across rice paddocks translates into substantial losses for growers.

“Variability in rice yield is a significant hurdle for the industry to overcome to achieve its water productivity target,” Tich said. “Rice yield can vary by as much as 50 per cent across a single paddock. When the same amount of water and nutrients are applied on average across paddocks, it leads to huge variations in nutrient and water use efficiency.

“Even 3-4 tonnes per hectare of variation can cost growers over $1,000 per hectare in lost production. At an industry level, this can add up to over $150 million a year.”

DataFarming Managing Director Tim Neale said the research packed powerful digital agronomy features into simple, fast and efficient tools that can be used in the field to reduce variability and increase water use efficiency.

“The real aim of this project was to make something that’s useful to growers and to overcome that barrier of complexity. Digital agronomy needs to be simple and intuitive,” Tim said.

“These tools were placed directly into the hands of growers to improve whole grain yield and increase the yield per megalitre of water, as well as break down the barriers to the adoption of precision agriculture on-farm.”

Mapping soil variability

Soil characteristics such as nutrient levels, soil type, structure and chemistry can vary dramatically between rice paddocks, as well as within individual paddocks, which can affect establishment, crop growth and yield.

Tim explained that soil variability is exacerbated in rice paddocks due to the extensive movement and levelling of soil during paddock preparation to ensure proper ponding and drainage. This process can expose subsoils with characteristics that impede rice growth and yield.

“The first problem we tried to solve was helping growers to manage soil variability to get an even seed bed and even plant establishment,” Tim said.

The project used electromagnetic soil sensing through the DataFarming Rapid-EMÔ machine to produce maps which showed soil variability across paddocks for growers. Identifying areas of a paddock where soil characteristics are not favourable for growth prior to planting can help growers target their applications of ameliorants such as gypsum and manures.

Monitoring crops in real-time

Growers also trialled high resolution satellite imagery to identify variability in growth as their crops developed.

“For the last three years we’ve been creating one and a half million-hectare captures across the entire rice industry using a two and a half metre resolution satellite to give growers real-time updates on how their crop is growing,” Tim said.

“A huge amount of data was captured, processed and delivered through DataFarming. Growers could log in for free, draw their farm boundaries and get access to the high-resolution data in essentially real time, so they could see each stage of growth. Seventy per cent of rice growers have put their boundaries into our platform and had that imagery delivered to them through our online platform as part of the project.”

DataFarming also developed machine learning tools which used the satellite imagery anomalies in a particular field, and across the whole industry.

The findings from this approach estimated that 18 per cent of the industry suffered nitrogen striping issues in 2023, leading to significant yield reductions. Other anomalies such as lodging were also automatically detected from the satellite.

Quick and easy variable rate mapping

The project also developed a tool to deliver more targeted and efficient PI nitrogen application through the creation of quick and easy maps for variable rate aerial application, something that is quite specific to rice farming.

“Agronomists can build a variable prescription map on their phone or laptop while sitting in the field – it’s really simple to use and can be completed in minutes,” Tim said.

“They can immediately convert the images into a variable rate prescription map, add the nitrogen application rates, and have the data ready for aerial application contractors to use within minutes.”

Tim highlighted that many agronomists currently use up to four pieces of software to build prescription maps which typically can’t be used in the field.

“The time this has taken in the past was another bottleneck to people adopting the use of variable rate application technology,” he said.

Predicting the perfect time for harvest

The final component of the project was to develop a tool that used satellite imagery to help predict the ideal time to harvest a crop based on its moisture content.

“We built this tool to be used at the sub-field level because crop variability is so large that some parts of a paddock need to be harvested right away and other parts need to be harvested in a week,” Tim said.

“Our tool tells you when you should harvest each section of a rice bay. A startling fact that we found was that, on average, almost half of all rice harvested in the last five years was not at the correct moisture level of 18-22 per cent – it was either too wet or too dry. This also significantly impacts on whole grain yield, impacting water use efficiency.”

Positive partnerships for a stronger industry

Tim is confident the project has achieved its primary goal of providing four useful and practical products to growers to help them save time, reduce costs and boost productivity. He emphasised the importance of making sure research directly benefits growers and the important role of commercial companies as research partners to deliver more user-friendly products.

“We researched in year one, developed the products in year two and deployed the commercial products in year three. That speed has rarely been achieved in the history of the industry,” Tim said.

“We need to get faster and smarter about how we deliver products in ways that are useful for growers, and I think that collaboration and partnerships are the best way of doing that.”

Find out more about what’s happening in the AgriFutures Rice Program

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