NAB senior leaders take a closer look at Australia’s trade and export sector – providing all-important insights into how regional and agribusinesses can best respond to today’s challenges and opportunities.
Farmers are faced with a multitude of agtech solutions. Finding the right one is all about knowing to ask the right questions.
Agtech promises to help farmers make faster and better-informed decisions. That’s all well and good, but how can you be confident that one of the many new high-tech solutions will meet your individual business needs?
Agtech, particularly when it comes to animal production, is still in its early days in Australia. While cropping businesses now have machines with integrated agtech solutions, those in animal production don’t have the same comprehensive options at their fingertips. Instead, there’s a large and growing number of agtech start-ups offering a selection of devices and apps that might, or might not, marry up with other devices.
At a more basic level, the apps can help with expense and yield tracking, from an individual paddock to whole farm planning, or even genomic selection and measured and visual trait data recording. Some are free while others require a subscription.
More complex are the innovative solutions that rely on the Internet of Things (IoT) – like weather stations, water-level monitoring (of dams, tanks, etc), virtual fencing and animal tracking. The great thing about IoT is that it offers cheaper and more reliable connectivity options over the long term compared to WiFi, which can be problematic in remote areas.
In fact, much of this emerging agtech appears to have amazing potential. But how do you get your head around it all and decide if any solution is actually fit for purpose? Many require a significant investment of money and time, which raises the question: will they meet your ROI objectives at the end of the day?
It’s difficult to say, says agri innovator Belinda Lay. An Esperance sheep and grain farmer and Western Australia’s Rural Women’s award winner in 2019, Lay says that there’s still a big gap between the technology industry and the agricultural industry. “The understanding of both is not quite there. There are some people that cross over both industries, but not a lot.”
This means that while the start-ups are coming up with some great ideas, they don’t necessarily have the farming background to identify potential problems. “They don’t think about things like cows rubbing on their devices,” Lay points out. “The way they’ve built their device might not be 100 per cent animal-proof or weather-proof.”
Similarly, on the farming side, there’s often not the technical expertise to make the most of these inventions. “There’s this real knowledge gap on both sides, and they haven’t come together neatly yet,” Lay says.
Lay has been through her own journey with agtech. In 2019, she fitted her sheep with specially designed collars that could track their movements, activity and temperature to find out, among other things, when a ewe was having trouble in labour. They were dubbed ‘Fitbits for sheep’.
The collars weren’t the only technology required, however, to achieve what Lay wanted. She also had to install a Sigfox IoT transmission tower to ensure she had adequate UHF radio band coverage over her farm. And she needed to find a suitable data storage system so she could get a more complete picture of what was happening with her sheep. On top of all this, there were the ongoing costs to consider.
It’s a similar case with the water tank sensors Lay has recently installed. Unfortunately, they only store three days’ data at a time in the phone app, which wasn’t quite enough to give Lay the holistic picture she needed. It was only when she was able to gain access to the long-term backend data set out over a selected time period that she realised one tank had a chronic leak.
It’s issues like these that made Lay realise there was a need for some kind of framework to help farmers identify any bottlenecks in whatever system they were using – and to empower them with their own tools to problem solve. After all, farmers are accustomed to fixing things themselves.
Designed in conjunction with Wes Lawrence, founder of Australian agtech company AxisTech, their eight-pillar framework breaks down any agtech system into the fundamental elements farmers need to consider when using a new device. By getting a better understanding of each element, they should have the ability to then make more informed decisions.
So what are these eight pillars and how do you go about using them? While Lay and Lawrence are in the process of running workshops to explain their methodology and unpack the sometimes confusing terminology that accompanies agtech, here’s a brief rundown of the eight key areas and where you need to start asking questions.
Aside from troubleshooting any problems with a device, the eight-pillar framework allows you to work out whether it’s the right purchase in the first place.
“Once farmers and producers understand it all, they can start making their own decisions about what they want, how they want their own system to work and what they want it to look like,” Lay says.
Essentially, it’s a matter of knowing the right questions to ask. As Julie Rynski, NAB Executive, Regional and Agribusiness, says: “That can go a long way to ensuring any business decision is a robust, fact-based decision to move your agribusiness forward.
“We often see customers adopt a technology, only later to find out it’s limited in its ability to really suit their business needs and operations – this framework could help weed out these issues early and avoid the potential costs of adopting the wrong tech for their particular business.”
Rynski does believe there’s value in farmers just starting somewhere – that is, avoiding “analysis paralysis” by picking a tech offering that helps solve a pain point and that they can see will provide a return on that investment in some way.
She adds: “Ultimately, if you want to invest confidently in your agribusiness’s future growth, it’s essential that you have robust, relevant data at your fingers tips – that you can see the bigger picture.”
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