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Making an impact at the grassroots level - and beyond (5 July 2019)

A group of farmers from the Northern Territory and Western Australia got their first look at a cotton crop recently on a tour ‘down south’. The trip was supported in part by CRDC through its Grassroots Grants program, creating partnerships far and wide, sharing knowledge and growing the cotton industry.

The tour was led by NT Farmers’ Andrew Philip, visiting farms and businesses in Toowoomba, Goondiwindi and Narrabri to learn more about the cotton industry, as cotton has become of crop of interest for northern region farmers and industries.

“It was fantastic and everyone we met was so helpful, engaging and open,” Andrew said.

“Not only did we learn more about the way the crop is grown; but how the industry operates – the biggest thing it’s given us is confidence that in the future we can go down south and learn even more.

“This is absolutely vital if we want to grow the industry up here.

“We’ve learned so much and now through sharing our experience and word of mouth about the trip it’s creating more interest and building momentum and enthusiasm.

“The Territory is virtually a greenfield site, so the experience has been invaluable in our efforts to move forward in the North.”

Andrew said applying for the grant was a quick and simple process. Over the past seven years, CRDC Grassroots Grants have supported 72 projects valued at around $630,000. The grants (of up to $10,000) are available to industry groups and cotton grower associations.

“The value for industry and for us is in providing initiatives designed by growers and crops managers with their direct need and benefit needs in mind,” CRDC Executive Director Ian Taylor says.

“Recent surveys have shown growers and consultants desire more on-farm trials and the ability to run events on short notice, often in response to seasonal issues, which can effect practice change.”

CottonInfo Gwydir Valley Regional Extension Officer (REO) Janelle Montgomery says small grants can be just what is needed to get on-farm trials, demonstrations or workshops off the ground. She said the Gwydir Valley cotton community has used the small grants over the years to do all those types of activities.

“In 2016-17 the Gwydir was hit hard with silverleaf whitefly (SLW) and the Macquarie Valley was only a season or two away: the consultants and growers needed information on managing whitefly, they didn’t want to go through a similar season again and southern valleys wanted to avoid it if possible.

“Thanks to a CRDC Grassroots Grant, area wide management (AWM) groups were able to get a consultant and grower from Emerald who lived through the horrendous whitefly incident in 2000-2001 to share their experiences first-hand with local growers and consultants, which had a significant impact.

“The value of going soft early season, knowing your chemical choice will have some impact, IPM and area wide management were all topics of discussion.

“With mealybug also just around the corner, the information was very relevant to this new pest too.

“The following season saw a dramatic turnaround in thinking: softer chemical was chosen early in the season by the majority in the Gwydir and while it ended up being a lower pressure (insect) year, I believe as a result of the AWM meeting growers and consultants were more aware of chemical choice and impact, their confidence in softer products improved and the spray program was carefully considered.

“Flowing on from this initial grant, CottonInfo and Crop Consultants Australia (CCA) built on the momentum with SLW presentations at CCA webinars, CottonInfo webinars and further visits to AWM meetings by industry entomologists Paul Grundy and Jamie Hopkinson.”

In the Macquarie Valley earlier this year, flow on effects from the grants led to the largest field day on record, looking at how growers can take advantage of ag technology, remote sensing and the Internet of Things (IoT) to create smart farms.

At the beginning of the 2018-2019 season the Macquarie Cotton Growers Association (MCGA) put in a CRDC Grassroots Grant application, with the aim to learn more about “this smart farm stuff”. As a result, local CottonInfo REO Amanda Thomas, along with locals Stu Denston, Sinclair Steele and Tim Gainsford travelled to an automation field day at Griffith.

“We saw some great technology and innovation with some farms that can fully automate irrigation,” Amanda said. 

“We knew we were a few steps behind that, but it gave a guide on where we needed to start, as well as seeing the end goal in action. 

“We took what we’d learned back to the Macquarie with the aim of trialling a suite of tools on farm and getting a grower’s honest view of technology.”

The on-farm trial used LoRaWAN gateway with sensors for fuel and water tank monitoring, soil probes, an AWS weather station along with channel water level, canopy temperature and MACE meter sensors. LoRaWAN gateways are designed to capture and send small packets of sensor data on a low frequency in an energy efficient way. Currently there are seven in the Macquarie valley with two more on the way.

Stu was a part of the trial, managing three farms with some distance between them. Having the sensors in place now means he can have information every 15 minutes on water and diesel levels.

“It has been great with monitoring our bore water tank that feeds our cattle troughs, especially in hot, dry weather – I need to know there is an issue as soon as possible, not when the tank runs dry.

“Giving farm staff access to this info has helped immensely, especially in storms situations. To know the pump is still going without have to drive through the mud at 4am is a game changer.

“I have been able to have workers spraying and running irrigation channels at the same time; this would not be possible without the sensors in place.”

The MCGA decided to hold a field day at “Karamea” near Gin Gin to showcase this technology and offer the “remote management experience” from the growers’ point of view. 

“During the field day we got to see the technology from the perspective of what the grower can see on their phone and computer, then we did a farm tour to show it in action on the farm,” Amanda said.

“To date it was the most well attended field day we have ever hosted, with around 112 people.

“This showed us that there are many who are sitting on the fence waiting for others to trial this technology before they commit to it.”

Amanda and Stu say the Grassroots Grants have been a valuable part of Macquarie cotton growers learning about smart farm technology.

Stu says one of the most attractive things about the grants is that they “support us to trial with little or no risk to the grower”.

“The feedback is that other growers are interested in learning from other growers as well as the traditional extension methods or a sales pitch from commercial partners,” he said.

“Feedback has told us that practice change is more likely if we have seen things being used in a ‘real farm’ situation that we can relate to.

“We also have the opportunity to have further input into developing the tools based on the grower experiences and preferences for the next stages of development.”

“We are very thankful to CRDC for this great initiative and hope it continues into the future”. 

Applications for CRDC’s annual Grassroots Grants program are now open - closing 30 November. Applications are reviewed on a first-come first-served basis. All details, including the Guidelines for Applicants and the Grassroots Grants application forms, are available here. Completed forms are to be submitted to research@crdc.com.au. Interested applicants are encouraged to discuss their project ideas with CRDC’s General Manager of R&D Investment, Allan Williams.