THE first weather stations are coming online as part of a $5.5 million partnership designed to reduce the incidence of damaging spray drift, which costs agriculture millions of dollars each year.
Under the joint venture by Grains Research and Development Corporation and Cotton Research and Development Corporation, Australian agtech company Goanna Ag is installing 100 automatic weather stations across the cotton and grain growing regions of Queensland and NSW.
The network of weather stations will be used to collect data every 10 minutes and provide a 24-hour forecast, broken into two-hour segments, highlighting hazardous temperature inversion periods.
This is expected to make it easier for growers and spray contractors to plan when they should and shouldn't spray chemicals.
Current regulations in Australia prohibit spray application of certain agricultural chemicals when hazardous surface inversions exist. Fine droplets of phenoxy herbicides, such as 2,4-D which is commonly used on summer weeds, can drift up to 70km in those conditions.
Goanna Ag chief executive officer Alicia Garden said the first of the weather stations, which have sensors mounted on a tower at heights of 2m and 10m, was installed near Boggabilla in early May.
Construction of the other 99 will follow once access agreements with landholders have been negotiated in an area stretching from Emerald in Queensland's Central Highlands to the NSW-Victoria border.
Ms Garden said they had used a "data heavy" mapping process to identify the best locations for the weather stations.
"We take the topography of the land into account," she said.
"Where there's the opportunity for cold winds to flow down from hills and across the flatter ground underneath, that can certainly increase the opportunity for spray drift or more turbidity."
Other factors such as vegetation type and density influenced the spacing between towers.
Some would be as close as 20km apart, while on flatter areas they could be up to 50km apart.
Ms Garden said Goanna Ag already had more than 700 smaller weather stations across the area identified for the project, but they weren't set up to capture all the metrics needed for inversion forecasting and monitoring.
"A normal weather station measures solar radiation, rainfall, wind speed, and temperature, all at that 2m height," she said.
"But for this technology, you really need to know what's going on at 10m as well."
Macquarie Cotton Growers Association chairman Billy Browning said the group, which represents more than 50 cotton growers and irrigators in the Macquarie Valley, had already installed its own network of the smaller Goanna Ag weather stations that were providing real time weather information they'd never before been able to access.
"It's fantastic," he said.
"It's giving contractors and growers access to a range of weather stations across our district and helping them inform decisions on when it's the right time to apply product or to spray."
Mr Browning, who grows both grain and cotton near Narromine, said there had been a concerted effort by the industry to increase awareness of spray drift since 2016 when it caused an estimated $20 million in losses to cotton crops in NSW and Queensland.
"There's been a lot of access to training since then, about nozzle selection, and understanding labels and timing of application, and inversions and Delta T, and all of those things," he said.
"It's definitely technical, but it's also all very understandable. And I think once people have that basic understanding, we've got great access to some chemistry that we can use."
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Mr Browning said it would be extremely helpful to have forecasts and alerts from the new network that's being installed now.
"The more assistance we can get in accurate decision making is only going to help the industry," he said.
Ms Garden said most farmers they'd approached had been happy to support the project by hosting a tower. Indeed, some had asked if they could have one on each of their properties.
"We view this very much as a pilot," she said.
"It has targeted at cotton and grains or the interface between cotton and grains, because the cotton industry has had quite a number of incidents of spray drift. I am aware that one recent season realised $20 million of damage from spray drift impacts."
Ms Garden said there were also opportunities to use the technology to reduce the incidence of spray drift affecting other agriculture sectors, including horticulture and viticulture.
The network is scheduled to be operational in time for the 2022-23 summer cropping season as part of the five-year project.
Data and alerts from the network would be made available to farmers and spray contractors free of charge through a website and app.
"There will not be a commercial barrier or paywall to prevent people from accessing current weather conditions," Ms Garden said.
"So yes, we're hoping for adoption by everybody."
Goanna Ag is also investigating the possibility of sending data directly to sprayers or farm management software platforms as part of the project.