Hands on in the agribusiness industry
Despite my family-farming background, a recent eight-month career break to work as a station hand on the Barkley Tablelands (near the QLD/NT border) gave me new perspectives and a fresh take on corporate agriculture.
The lush green districts of the Western District of Victoria are a far cry from the harsh landscapes of Northern-Queensland’s outback Australia but my ‘season’ up north was an incredibly grounding experience. Life revolved around animals and this meant there was always work to be done. Weekends were a thing of the past, and nothing beat a drink by the horse yards at the end of a hard day’s work.
Life on a station is, in some ways, simpler. There’s work to be done and you get down to it. If something breaks you don’t have the means to immediately buy something new or hand it over to the service team for repair. It’s up to you to fix what’s broken, often without someone’s help who’s done it before. My experiences were unique and incredible and the memories will stay with me for a long time.
These experiences however are still relatable to the work that I do day-to-day. The on-farm challenges being faced in Northern Australia are parallels to broader industry issues that our team are working to resolve each day.
Technology and connectivity
Connectivity is a key limiting factor for on-farm technology in regional and rural Australia. With the introduction of the National Livestock Identification Scheme (NLIS), data on an animal by animal basis is stored, captured and shared as standard practice through Electronic Identification Tags (EID). However, this simple technology has the ability to provide more than just identity and ownership data. While hardware technology is widespread (e.g. scanning devices, etc.), the ability to use some of the enabling software is limited due to a lack of internet connectivity in remote Australia. This drives data retention and utilisation issues across the industry. For example, without the internet, information captured in a device must still be manually recorded as often there are limited back-up systems (or power sources) within a 50km radius of the yards. The use of sensors and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices also remains limited where any form of internet connection or long-range Bluetooth is either not yet possible or too expensive.
However there are ways to get around this. Firstly, understanding the on-farm requirements is key to determining what connectivity options are out there. Co-investment across multiple properties and collaboration with neighbouring areas can provide the first step to overcoming cost hurdles. Once a connectivity baseline is established, farmers can begin to implement IoT and other digital solutions on-farm.
Supply chain assurance
Biosecurity is a real risk to the Australian red meat sector and is governed by the Livestock Production Assurance program (LPA) and the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS). Domestic and international demand from consumers on supply chain assurance and traceability is only increasing. This is driven by advancements in technology but also evolving consumer preferences and taste. Internationally food fraud is a very real threat to the growth of Australia’s market share in the red meat sector.
On large-scale properties with high volumes of transport moving through, including road trains that take more than 264 head of cattle (weaners) in one load, monitoring biosecurity can be difficult. The constant high turnover of staff in remote and regional stations can mean maintaining and monitoring biosecurity is even more difficult. The risk of various diseases, and maintaining certain parasite and pest-free status is a constant challenge for the staff on a property. Integrity of the entire value chain system relies on correctly administered practices and good record keeping, and being able to demonstrate this to the next customer in the supply-chain and ultimately the end-consumer. The use of blockchain is making real inroads in this area, with track and trace platforms enabling the tracking of produce throughout the supply chain whilst capturing and displaying relevant information. It allows key participants in the supply chain to share and store data in a secure, tamperproof format designed to make trading faster and safer, with access to certifications along the way.
Sustainability and navigating climate volatility
The volatility of the Australian climate environment has had long-standing effects on the way Australia undertakes its agricultural practices. And, this has become even more exacerbated with the changing-climate. Diversification and sustainability practices are paramount. For example, in the region where I was working, those companies who had diverse and varied locations had an advantage since they could send livestock from drought affected landscapes with no feed to post-flooded landscapes where feed was abundant.
Building sustainable practices that are climate resistant is a challenge for many parts of the Australian agricultural industry. Development of key themes around responsible use of inputs, environmental stewardship, grower health and wellbeing, and application of circular economy principles are key for the Australian agricultural industry to continue to develop. With changing consumer expectations and increasing climate volatility, a proactive approach to sustainability will be key to the industry’s success going forward.