Whole farm tool at fingertips

Headshot of Cally Dupe
Cally DupeCountryman
DPIRD development officer Tanya Kilmister and MADFIG president Andrew Crook.
Camera IconDPIRD development officer Tanya Kilmister and MADFIG president Andrew Crook. Credit: Cally Dupe

Imagine this: with just a few clicks of a mouse and taps of a keyboard, your digital decision-making tool takes a whole-farm approach, predicting how your crop could yield, how many sheep you could run, and how much money you could make.

That’s the hope behind a new tool being developed by Merredin and Districts Farm Improvement Group, Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, and Albany-based agricultural economist consultant Lucy Anderton, of LA.ONE Consulting.

The three groups joined forces three years ago to take ag-tech into their own hands and develop a digital, whole-farm decision-making tool.

Designed to be a desktop application, its current form is an excel spreadsheet, which can help growers to manage risk — particularly in terms of seasonal and market volatility, as well as scenario planning for investment opportunities.

It will this year be transformed into a web-based application called FarmSmart, as part of a project called Flexible Farming Systems.

MADFIG president Andrew Crook said the tool differed from current tools on the market because it brought together both cropping and livestock systems.

“Our seasons are so variable and the opportunity of missing out on income is very real,” he said.

“The tool will help me identify those opportunities faster than I am doing at this point.

“So if I am getting this information out of the tool, say about pasture growth, it might even extend out of options for leasing country that are generally decisions made a fraction too late.

“We want to punch in our own farm information, and look at what different decisions will mean for our business in the future.

“We want this to be very user-friendly, that is very important.”

The new tool could help producers calculate sheep numbers.
Camera IconThe new tool could help producers calculate sheep numbers. Credit: Steve Ferrier

The tool aims to bear down on the minute details of each business and provide answers to potential scenarios, including adding sheep, or increasing canola production.

Its model calculates yields for crops and pastures for different seasonal conditions, decile one to nine, using the farm’s nearest historical rainfall and pasture growth data.

After several poor seasons, MADFIG started thinking about how farmers could “drought-proof their business”, with the “best possible information”.

What they came up with, DPIRD business development officer Tanya Kilmister said, was a need for “a whole-farm application” designed to empower growers with decision-making and risk-management figures.

Ms Kilminster has been instrumental in developing the project with both the MADFIG and FEAR groups as project manager for the Flexible Farming Systems project.

Creating the FarmSmart tool is one of the major outcomes of the project.

After developing up the project in collaboration with the grower groups, the Flexible Farming Systems project received $418,000 of funding from the State Government’s Ag Innovation Fund in 2016 with further in-kind support from DPIRD and the grower groups.

“The idea for this business decision tool for farmers was born from a frustration that a user-friendly decision support tool did not exist,” Ms Kilminster said.

“Our focus is to provide a solution for farmers who want to understand the interaction between complex variables, enabling them to make more informed decisions. The point of difference for this decision support tool is the integration of science in both the cropping and livestock systems.

“We wanted to combine what farmers already know with realistic data, scenario planning for farmers.”

MADFIG, which incorporated in 2015 specifically to focus on research and development in the Merredin area, is hosting the project.

DPIRD has funded the project through Ms Kilmister’s time and salary, and FEAR is a project partner with members on the Flexible Farming Systems steering committee. For Mr Crook, the tool could mean looking forward to the future at what different decisions might mean.

He farms about 7500ha, cropping about 6000ha a year, with his wife Sue, brother Steven and Steven’s wife Julie.

In recent years, Andrew’s two sons, Jayden, 32, and Callan, 30, have also returned to the farm with their families.

Cropping is the main driver, and the farmers have upped their canola plantings in recent years to up to 35 per cent — depending on seasonal conditions.

But the farmers also run a 1600-head, self-replacing flock of Merinos across about 1500ha.

“Farmers in our area are probably a touch more conservative, because of the margins they have to play with,” Mr Crook said.

“Through this tool we are hoping we can get a few more kilograms of grain per millimetre of rain, and give farmers an insight into how their business could look.”

MADFIG and FEAR members will be the first to trial the new tool this year, with the hope the tool will be up and running by December and commercial next year.

LA.ONE founder and principal Lucy Anderton has been developing the tool, with ongoing support and feedback from Wheatbelt farmers.

Her business is relatively new in WA, and focuses on economic analysis for clients.

“Farm managers will be able to use the tool with their own input data to carry out scenario analyses and investment decisions, and the impact of those decisions over a five-year period, including changes in season and price deciles,” Ms Anderton said.

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