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Harvesting data for smart farms

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Projects help farmers access crop DNA and breed healthier cows

As a major part of Australia’s economy it is no surprise that agriculture is taking on the modern data challenge.

Research data – if it can effectively be collected and analysed – promises to provide farmers with the knowledge to increase crop yields by improving tolerance to higher temperatures, increased salinity, flooding and prolonged periods of drought. It is also helping farmers to produce healthier and more productive livestock through better herd management.

Smart farm David LambKey to achieving these goals is tapping into better, more comprehensive genetic and biological data about crops and livestock.

This is the aim of scientists from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology (ARC CPEB), who have developed CropPAL (Crop Proteins with Annotated Locations).

CropPAL catalogues information on vital proteins in staple food crops, such as wheat, barley, maize and rice.

“There is a lot of research data out there, and bringing it all together in one dataset provides a very powerful tool for the crop breeding industry,” says Dr Cornelia Hooper, lead researcher for CropPAL from the ARC CPEB at the University of Western Australia.

The initiative, funded by ANDS, is an open-access tool containing data on plant proteins collected from over 3,000 studies worldwide. Proteins are the building blocks of cells, and understanding their location and function enables more targeted breeding of crop species with adaptations suited to
changing growing conditions.

“We collated all this data together to generate a big dataset,” says Dr Hooper. “So we can look for patterns, changes or similarities within the proteins of a specific crop species and across different species.”

Pinpointing the location of a single protein does not change a complex plant trait, such as drought-tolerance; a more thorough understanding of the network of genes and proteins is needed. According to Dr Hooper, big datasets like CropPAL will help to “unlock and harness the mechanism more effectively to breed resilient species in the future.”

Researchers from The University of Adelaide are now working on a spin-off project called CropTIPS (Crop Transport Information, Physiology and Signalling Database). It aims to extract information from around 5,000 publications, supporting further knowledge exchange and innovation in the sector.

Healthier cows

The Health Data for Healthy Cows (HDHC) project, funded by the Gardiner Foundation, will also harness the power of data to improve the health and productivity of the Australian dairy industry. By building a national database of disease incidence, the project will assist geneticists at the Australian Dairy Herd Improvement Scheme to augment current Australian Breeding Values (ABVs) with data on health issues such as lameness, mastitis, and metabolic and reproductive disorders.

“We’re utilising health records and DNA of around 22,000 cows from the 100 Australian genomic information nucleus herds,” says Dr Mary Abdelsayed, project manager and research scientist on the HDHC at Holstein Australia. “The DNA provides additional information for better selection of healthy cows, so we can provide tools for farmers to breed healthier next-generation cows and bulls.”

The database, developed in partnership with the Dairy Futures CRC, also supports work on the Good Bulls App, which allow farmers to select, with a swipe of their smartphone, bulls with traits that match
their breeding objectives.

Creating smarter farms

Innovative techniques are also being used to take a ‘whole farm’ approach to agriculture research.

Just outside Armidale, New South Wales, the University of New England (UNE), along with industry and research partners including CSIRO, have transformed 2,900 hectares of farmland into the Kirby-Newholme SMART Farm (Sustainable, Manageable and Accessible Rural Technologies).

As well as being a working commercial farm, the site is a national demonstration site showcasing the latest technologies for improving productivity, environmental sustainability and safety on Australian farms.

Sensors on the ground monitor soil moisture, soil temperature, air temperature and weather data. Livestock is tracked through tags, whilst pasture growth rates are captured by satellite and published online. The farm also includes a $2 million Innovation Centre with a control hub, offices and teaching space.

“UNE is unique in the world for its SMART Farm, which has been an asset for a range of research on grazing, forestation and water,” says Professor David Lamb, chief researcher at UNE’s Precision Agriculture Research Group (pictured above).

“Now we are developing the farm into a highly connected, 21st century facility that keeps us at the forefront of technological advancements.”

Image: Professor David Lamb at Kirby-Newholme SMART Farm (Credit: David Lamb / UNE)

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