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?
Closing the knowledge gap
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.
Hardware is only the start
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.
A framework for success
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.
8 pillars to get you started
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.
- Installation: This is about identifying the problem and its location as well as understanding the environment in which an agtech solution needs to work. You might want to consider its exposure to animals (Will your sheep or cattle be able to knock it about risk-free?), environmental exposure (Is it going to cope with a lot of rain?) and geography (How do hills interfere with data transmission?).
- Sensors: Asking how any sensors in the device work is important; they will impact the quality of data you receive.
- Devices: Getting up close and personal with the actual device is imperative when you start asking questions. You need to know how it powers itself for one thing, but understanding the type of data it deals in is also key.
- Connectivity: The terminology here can be baffling, but it’s good to have a basic grasp of what’s what and how they interact, whether it’s bluetooth, WiFi or the likes of LoRaWAN or Sigfox. A primer on these will pay big dividends before you ask the salesperson which one the device relies on, or to reduce the need for multiple solutions to gain connectivity.
- Data ingestion: Any agtech solution requires an understanding of those parts that aren’t so readily visible – those that go beyond your physical device. This is where data ingestion fits in. As Lay says, to get the most out of your solution, your data has to be “findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable”. (What she and Lawrence call the FAIR principles.) “After all, this is my data and I should be able to use it for whatever I want, whether that’s benchmarking, breed selection or supply chain traceability.” When it comes to data ingestion, it’s a matter of asking: how will my data (batch and historical) be handled – and therefore meet those FAIR principles? To really appreciate this aspect of your solution, you’ll need to get comfortable with terms like ‘data standardisation’.
- Data storage: This also needs to meet the FAIR principles, but, again, you’ve got to know your lingo. You’ll get to hear about such things as servers, cloud, AWS, Azure, SQL, databases and data historians. Questions you’ll need answered here include: How is the data stored? Where is it located? Who holds it? Who owns it? Who has access to it and what’s it being used for? Can I get access to it? All of these are key considerations when it comes to making the best use of your data.
- On-farm data consumption: It’s important to understand how the layers of data you collect (via applications, dashboards and apps) can be used to benefit your farm. How the data has been ingested and stored will make all the difference here. Some agtech providers will combine pillars 5 and 6 as part of the solution they are offering, and display the data in an app. Lay and Lawrence want producers to be aware that this is what is happening and that, potentially, it may not be possible to access that data for a different purpose.
- Aggregated data consumption: This is fast becoming a reality. It focuses on sharing data among farmers and the wider supply chain to help with things like traceability and benchmarking. However, farmers need to have their data in one place for this to become a reality and that’s not happening yet. First, farmers must get comfortable with sharing their data. Says Lay: “Farmers are a little funny about their data. Some of them don’t care, and then some of them do care, and they care a lot.” Maybe you can ask whether there are any opportunities to share data with other users – to get the bigger picture.
Knowing what to ask
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.”