FROM drones monitoring pasture to mobile phone alerts replacing 250 kilometre drives to check water levels, digital technology and the ability to access and share real-time objective information has the potential to change the day-to-day life of livestock producers in big ways.
Holding up the process, however, is inadequate connectivity and that’s why red meat industry leaders and progressive operators are planning to shove it firmly in the faces of politicians in the lead-up to next year’s federal election.
The issue was returned to time and again at Red Meat 2018, this year’s week of forums, seminars and discussion panels held around annual general meetings of key industry bodies, held in Canberra in November and attended by more than 800.
Massive amounts of research and development were being laid out for the beef industry but in 90 per cent of situations it can’t be applied, prominent industry executive David Foote, Australian Country Choice, said.
Meat and Livestock Australia’s general manager of research, development and innovation Sean Starling told delegates connectivity for a large number of Australian producers was not acceptable for businesses to prosper in their current form, “never mind as we need to collect and deal with more data.”
Connectivity was not just about the financial side of a farming business, he said.
“Why shouldn’t your workforce be able to access the School of the Air via the internet or watch Netflix,” he said.
One of the world’s largest vertically-integrated red meat supply chains, Queensland-based ACC and its supply arm Australian Cattle and Beef Holdings has been at the forefront of the technology transformation.
ACC, which has a long-term contract in place with Coles as the principal northern supplier and processor of beef products, has been using drones to measure not only quantity but quality of grass on its extensive network of properties.
It also has weather stations measuring rain, temperature, wind and even soil temperatures.
Mr Foote, one of the panellists on a transformation session at Red Meat 2018, said the ACC technology move had been staff-driven. It was seen as something that would greatly benefit the day-to-day running of cattle producing businesses.
“What we are doing now is loading up our biomass, our pasture, our fenceline data - this will build and build and ideally it will go live and then management can access touch imagery to make decisions,” Mr Foote explained.
Mr Starling said the value of this type of technology would be in automation.
“Producers behind the control of drones might be fun for a little while but it won’t add long-term value to the business,” he said.
“Our focus is that these solutions, as they evolve, become fully autonomous and a silent service.”
Therein lies the problem.
The beef industry had identified 500 gigabytes is typically what it takes to run its rural and regional operations.
“Current mainstream telcos are offering a hell of a lot less than that so as an industry we definitely have to support producers who need this service,” Mr Starling said.
Mr Foote was a little more forward.
“The connectivity we have been offered across the bush is typical of what we call bush resilience - we put up with it and get on with what we’ve got and don’t make enough noise,” he said.
“We’re wasting our efforts if we can’t apply the innovations we are coming up with.
“So in May next year let’s put connectivity on the top of our list.”
Mr Foote said ACC had an operation two hours from a major capital city, with zero connectivity.
“We can have it for $264,000 a year if I can get the bloke who owns the biggest tower 15 kilometres away to let me rent a space.
“That’s just not acceptable.
“When National Broadband was designed, Netflix wasn’t around. Today, Netflix consumes 93pc of the bandwidth of NBN.
“There is something out there now being designed which will take up the last 7pc.
“Virtual fencing, walkover weighing - it’s all real and available but pointless without affordable connectivity.
“It will mean less staff, much easier mustering, the ability to work out when cattle join, when they calve, accurate pasture budgets and water use monitoring. All this will be at your fingertips without having to travel across every square kilometre of your land.
“It is the way of the future and it’s ready for us but we haven’t got the connectivity to make it happen.”
Indeed, there were stories told at Red Meat of beef companies having to change their logos because they took too long to download and kids spending an afternoon online gaming putting an end to business email downloads for the rest of the month.
Western Australia goat producers Calum and Belinda Carruth, Murchison House Station at Kalbarri, have taken the bulls by the horn and installed their own whole-of-farm connectivity system.
The 126,000 hectare Murchison House with 60km of Indian Ocean shoreline is one of WA’s oldest pastoral stations.
WA rangeland country, Mr Carruth said, was beautiful but rugged and punishing on those managing it.
“Our aim was to significantly reduce time and costs associated with that management,” Mr Carruth told Red Meat 2018 delegates.
A tower was installed on a hill, to provide signal back to the homestead, providing 100gb speeds and unlimited downloads.
“It turns out we are using around 500gb a month rather than the 75 offered from NBN,” Mr Carruth said.
The initial phase of the Murchison House project is a water monitoring system, which controls all tanks with flow meters and level switches.
“Instead of a 250km drive three times a week to check water levels I simply get an alert on my phone when anything drops below normal,” Mr Carruth said.