Digital agriculture is the way of the future

James Stephens, Charles Sturt's farm manager and Dr Alison Southwell looking at digital agriculture information on an iPad while standing in front of a large tractor.
Digital agriculture is one of the most exciting elements set to shape the future of the industry. It’s a future that Charles Sturt University’s Dr Alison Southwell is eagerly preparing for, where the possibilities – and benefits – seem endless. Dr Southwell is a discipline lead for Agricultural Science. She is also a commercial merino producer and business partner in a broad acre crop contracting business outside Wagga. “The world’s population is increasing at such a rapid rate. It’s estimated we’ll hit 9.8 billion by 2050. For agriculture to feed this growing global population we’ll have to do it better and smarter because we have finite land and water resources to draw upon in a changing climate. And it needs to be done in an environmentally, socially and ethically responsible manner. It’s a big challenge. “But that means it’s never boring. We need to adapt faster, so the opportunities in this industry will be endless. These are exciting times for agriculture. Our task, though, is to ensure the technologies we adopt and introduce to the industry will actually be of benefit. They must be accessible and make a positive difference to the livelihoods and profitability of our farmers.” Dr Southwell says it’s not about taking on technology just for the sake of it. It’s about doing things better and being more efficient for the betterment of agriculture and the environmental systems they work within. It’s about using technology that will make farmers and the industry money. The farming industry has one of the highest weekly workloads. Half the people in this industry work 50 plus hours per week.
Dr Alison Southwell and James Stephens talking digital agriculture while standing in the middle of a canola crop.
“The last thing they need are technologies that make them work longer. They want technology that helps them work smarter and faster – so they can spend more time with their families.”

What is digital agriculture?

Digital agriculture can be broadly defined as using technology to help us incorporate valuable information into the way we do agriculture. Dr Southwell explains that a range of technologies will be leading the charge. “It can include the use of database management, spatial analysis and mapping, the individual identification of animals, and traceability along the supply chain. It can also be about the use of predictive tools such as modelling. Or the use of farm management software for auditing, reporting and improving efficiency. Or it can be the use of immersive technology such as virtual reality or augmented reality in educational and workplace settings. There’s going to be a big future in auto controlled devices. People aren’t going to be driving farm machines anymore, they’ll be operated by a computer system.”

Spatial data gives rise to a new sector

Dr Southwell believes that with the introduction of new technologies will come some exciting employment opportunities.
Dr Alison Southwell and her two dogs on the farm.
“The industry will need professionals with one foot in the computer lab and one in the paddock. People who are capable of harnessing new technology – like spatial data – and translating that data into usable, valuable information.”
“For example, major manufacturers are building farm machinery like headers with the ability to gather information and spatial data as standard features. As the harvester moves around it collects yield data on how much grain comes off what part of the paddock. But the issue is these yield maps often don’t leave the header or the cloud. Few farmers download the data, or if they do, they may not know how to use it effectively for decision making. We’re finding we have a really big gap between the data these machines collect and the use of that data at the farm level. “Farmers either don’t have time or the ability to deal with the data. Remember, it’s a whole new skill set to manipulate that data into something valuable you can use. Think of it this way. We might do some of our bookkeeping, but we engage an accountant to do the bulk of our taxation work. It’s the same type of scenario with farmers. Just because the technology exists to collect this new data shouldn’t mean we expect farmers to expand their skill set and drain more of their time to make use of it.” So, a unique sector within the agricultural industry is set to emerge. Serviced by a group of professionals with a whole new skill set, these roles would take the wealth of data and turn it into something meaningful. Farmers could then use that information to make more informed management decisions.

Charles Sturt University’s Bachelor of Agricultural Science

And that’s where Charles Sturt University’s Bachelor of Agricultural Science comes in. Dr Southwell said this qualification will ensure graduates understand the application of these technologies – and be prepared for agriculture now and well into the future.
Close up of Dr Alison Southwell
“In the Bachelor of Agricultural Science we are going to produce graduates who will take new data, analyse it and make it useful for those in the agricultural industry.
“They’ll have the tech knowledge and data base management capacity to gather relevant information, and shape it into something that will help farmers make better decisions.” Dr Southwell knows technology will also impact another critical element of farm management – software. “Common farm management software records information like farm activities, inventory, and out puts. Information like this is really important for farm efficiency, auditing and environmental management. Many farmers now incorporate farm management software into their farm practices. The use of this software means consultants can remotely access their farm client’s data and provide timely and accurate advice relevant to what’s occurring on that particular farm. “With the commercial farm management software on the Charles Sturt farm, we are ensuring our students are comfortable working with the types of software that growers are actually using. And, in the future our grads could potentially improve those programs. “It’s about having the depth of knowledge, in terms of a farm system, to maximise use and efficiency. The more data farmers have access to the better their decisions can be. But it needs to be done in a way that is palatable to farmers and the way they operate.”

A flexible, practical foundation

With the agricultural industry heading towards something of a technological revolution, Dr Southwell explains that Charles Sturt’s Bachelor of Agricultural Science has recently been revamped. “Throughout an 18-month review we’ve gathered a lot of information from our longstanding industry contacts, as well as students. We wanted to ensure this qualification became even more flexible for students and more tightly aligned with industry needs. “This course matches with student expectations – especially their need for greater flexibility. They’ll have greater choice over the length of study and be able to tailor their studies to their career interests in agriculture. Importantly, they’ll have a range of industry career paths. They can study for two, three or four years. It can be on campus, online or a combination of both if they’d prefer. They can major in agronomy, livestock production, mixed farm business, horticulture or digital agriculture. “And they’ll be ready for the workplace because this course has a lot more workplace learning – including on the Charles Sturt farm and through to an industry-based internship in the final year.”

Be a part of agriculture’s exciting future

Are you considering a career in agriculture? Inspired by digital agriculture and how innovation will create a future of agriculture? Our new Bachelor of Agricultural Science is for you. Wherever you want to take your agricultural career, we’ve got practical, hands-on courses to get you there. It’s what we do.