A greener environment through better data management

Data supporting farmers to improve productivity

An agricultural research group is encouraging Australian grain farmers to join a National Farming Practices Database, an online central repository which includes detailed growing reports and productivity updates.

Called the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), the group saw the need to help farmers improve productivity through better decision making.

The database was revamped last year and is designed for grain farms to get a better environmental handle on the practices they are using.

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According to Alan Umbers, manager of the Pathways to EMS project directed by the GRDC, which is a joint venture between the federal government and the Grains Council of Australia, there is a natural link between the database and environmental management.

“Many of today’s farming practices have both productivity and environmental benefits," he said. "So if we can better identify which practices have positive environmental effects it will lead to better environmental outcomes across the industry.”

Limited by Australian Bureau of Statistics data, which is only recorded once every five years, the only option for the Grains Council to learn what's happening on grain farms is from the farmers themselves.

“It’s a simple process that involves farmers entering data directly on a form on their computer. Once this is done — a procedure which takes around 20 minutes — they will receive a detailed report showing productivity and sustainability information for their own farm," Umbers said.

To his surprise, the grain farmers have so far been happy to contribute to the database and freely give out their information.

“There is a natural curiosity to see how well their farm is going. They’re always looking to learn from each other and are quite willing to share information about what they do on their farms, and this [database] is a small extension of that.”

There are about 25,000 grain farms in Australia. Umbers is yet to campaign nationally for the project, which is currently running in south-eastern New South Wales.

“We have some information from about 1,000 Australian grain farms -- about five percent. That’s not very many, but we’ve only really been testing the system and trying to get some information together to see how well it works,” Umbers said.

“We don’t expect to get everybody, and nor do we need to get everybody. Of the 25,000 [grain farms] around 10,000 of them produce three-quarters of the crop. But clearly there’s a lot more to go.”

The database software, which is written in Microsoft’s Visual FoxPro, gathers data from interactive PDFs and Web site entries. According to database developer Anne Allen, once the data is received from the farmers, the Visual FoxPro software delivers a report which in turn is sent back to the farmer in an email.

“My current goal is to develop the front-end to become a stand-alone entity. That way the farmer can then take their laptop out to the farm and just enter the data there,” Allen said.

However, it has not been without its hiccups. The main problem faced in the software’s early days was the costly time consumed in checking the hard data for accuracy.

“The more we get the computers to do [the processing work], the faster and hopefully more accurate it will become. At the moment we’re trying to eliminate a lot of paper errors,” Allen said.

So far on the local front there has been major interest from the NSW and Victorian catchment management authorities.

Umbers says the grains database has been designed especially for Australia, and has the potential to roll-out on other industries. It is currently being eyed-off by the sugar, wool and livestock industries.

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