October 7, 2014

Precision farmer David Cox discusses the role of technology

From satellite navigation to controlled traffic zonal tillage, David Cox is at the cutting-edge of precision farming. He explains how he uses technology to reduce costs and increase efficiency on his North Queensland sugarcane farm and how he’s now helping other farmers do the same.

In 2012 when David Cox became the first person outside of the United States to be awarded Precision Farmer of the Year by the US based Precision Ag Institute, the global scale of his ongoing achievements was recognised.

Cox, who features on the October pages of this year’s NAB Agribusiness Calendar, grew up in a cattle-grazing family in Northern Queensland. But since the day his father sold him a block of land in 1978, his passion has been to seek out and employ new technologies – such as satellite imagery and GPS – and to drive the development of controlled traffic, zonal tillage and variable rate application systems.

“Back then, the average Queensland sugarcane farm was about 70-hectares,” he says. “I embarked on the development of a 2,400-hectare farm where I could justify developing farming systems using the latest technology with larger machinery in multi-row configurations.”

An Australian first

In 1998, after returning from a US conference, Cox found three young Australians pioneering the Beeline guidance system. “I think I was the sixth person in the world to buy it from them and the first person in the world to use GPS navigation for row cropping sugarcane,” says Cox.

Today’s precision farming involves much more than driving straight rows. For example, farmers can match what they add to the soil with what it actually needs over small sections of land. “We used to apply soil conditioners, like lime and gypsum, at a consistent eight tonnes per hectare,” says Cox. “Now, as we’re harvesting, we measure the variation in the yield across the block and then apply anything from two tonnes to fourteen tonnes per hectare, depending on the requirements of the soil.”

It seems his flair for finding new and innovative options runs in the family. “In 1996, with my financial support, my nephew developed one of my land-forming design concepts into the world’s first yield-mapping system for sugarcane,” says Cox. “It’s a software solution called Optisurface and it’s now marketed around the world.”

While site-specific placement of soil conditioner and fertiliser benefits the soil and environment, it also reduces costs. And Cox has devised a controlled traffic, zonal tillage system for sugarcane that reduces costs even further. “Controlled traffic zonal tillage leaves compacted traffic lanes through the field,” he says. “In our three-metre CT system for sugarcane, around 18 percent of the soil is left compacted, so we don’t expend any fuel or energy in tilling it.”

These lanes also enable Cox to perform all necessary farm operations much sooner after rain than conventional tillage systems. “When your planting is getting close to winter, that could make the difference between 180 tonnes per hectare and 120 tonnes per hectare in next year’s harvest.”

One chance to get it right

Cox is committed to finding emerging technologies that have a potential economic benefit for farmers. “You can go broke investing in technology that isn’t robust enough for an agricultural environment,” he says. “Dust, heat and moisture can play havoc with electronics and some systems need very skilled service back up that isn’t available in rural areas.”

He also urges anyone developing a farm to think very carefully about layout. “You only get one chance to design a farm layout which will allow you to capture productivity gains of both machinery and labour,” he says. “Once infrastructure like roads, power lines, irrigation channels and drainage lines are installed, they’re normally economically impractical to shift, so it’s vital that you invest in creating a block shape that will let you use big equipment to its greatest advantage. You need to aim for as uniform a shape as possible with even-length furrows and as close as possible to a row direction at right angles to the headland.”

Cox is convinced that innovations based on GPS technology will continue to keep him occupied. “I spend an enormous amount of time on this research, but fortunately I thrive on it,” he says. “It’s my hobby as well as my job.”

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