Men and machines at Dally

26 Nov, 2013 01:00 AM
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Big farm programs can be managed more efficiently with the AgriTrack, according to Steve Sawyer (left), seen talking with AgriTrack founder Andrew Humphries.The AgriTrack application allows for comprehensive decision-making for managers and operators through speed and location tracking, area measurement and information-sharing.
Big farm programs can be managed more efficiently with the AgriTrack, according to Steve Sawyer (left), seen talking with AgriTrack founder Andrew Humphries.The AgriTrack application allows for comprehensive decision-making for managers and operators through speed and location tracking, area measurement and information-sharing.

MOST farmers are familiar with the delirium that results from long hours in the cab during seeding and harvest.

Many a revelation, life-changing decision or new idea has been born out of the haze of a long day's work, albeit, some more questionable than others.

But it was these extended periods of time on the tractor that gave one Kiwi backpacker an exciting new idea that is helping some WA grain growers to enhance on-farm efficiency through effective management.

Having combined his passion for technology with his love for the agricultural industry, AgriTrack founder Andrew Humphries has developed a management tool that facilitates the live tracking of farm vehicles.

Originally from a sheep and beef farm in New Zealand, Mr Humphries opted for a change of direction when he left a degree in computer engineering behind to work on the family farm.

He began seasonal work in Dalwallinu in 2009 and loved it so much he returned for four consecutive seeding periods.

The idea for Agritrack was developed in 2012, where Mr Humphries would ruminate on the development of the technology during 12 hour stints on the tractor.

The AgriTrack application allows for comprehensive decision-making for managers and operators through speed and location tracking, area measurement and information-sharing.

The technology tracks individual machines and logs information about the movement, speed and position of operators.

Machines are colour-coded, based on role, and are linked to specific operators with movements mapped and overlayed over satellite imagery.

"The general idea behind AgriTrack is that it allows live decision-making for everyone on-farm," Mr Humphries said.

"Not only can the manager know exactly where every single worker is or where they have been at any time, it can help workers decide where to go.

"It's not just for the manager on the farm, everyone on the farm gets a benefit from it, especially casual staff.

"Often full-time employees know what the farms look like, but the casual staff don't have the foggiest idea if they are in the correct paddock.

"Even I used to question whether I was spraying the right paddock.

"With AgriTrack the manager could see exactly where I was from the office, and he could ring me up and tell me if I was in the wrong paddock."

While the concept may sound straightforward, if you ask Dalwallinu grain grower Rob Sawyer, a partner of J and B Sawyer, it is often the simplest ideas that have the biggest impact.

So confident is he in Mr Humphries and AgriTrack, Mr Sawyer has thrown his support behind the project, out-fitting his entire fleet with the technology.

While farmers can be sceptical of new technology, AgriTrack was successfully trialled by other growers in the region this season and has been given the tick of approval.

And when you mix youthful enthusiasm with grounding knowledge from an experienced farmer, you might just be onto a winner.

"Andrew is a guy that has come over here and driven as casual staff for four years on our seeder," Mr Sawyer said.

"He has then come up with this idea, he made it into a company and has raised finance, which is pretty impressive.

"Margins are tighter now in agriculture as a whole so if we didn't think it wasn't a great concept we wouldn't invest.

"My initial thoughts when I saw the system was that it was a brilliant concept."

J and B Sawyer implemented a 23,000ha cropping program this season, and trialled the system during the 2013 seeding period and was immediately impressed.

The Dalwallinu grower ran four seeding units around the clock, three spray rigs and two management units during the seeding period, and is currently running one management unit, five headers and two chaser bins this harvest.

"We have a person running a day shift and a person running the night shift," he said. "With AgriTrack the people running the shift know what is happening."

With 11 seasonal workers currently on hand, Mr Sawyer said it was often difficult to source semi-skilled labour during peak periods.

"A big percentage of the Wheatbelt uses semi-skilled labour, it's just the way it is at the moment," Mr Sawyer said.

"Agriculture can't compete with mining money so we have lost quite a large percentage of the workforce that we might have had access to ten years ago.

"We rely on European backpackers to help put a crop in or take it off.

"We do need those casual staff coming through, and a lot of guys come with limited skill but a lot of energy and dedication.

"You have that language barrier, even with Irish and Scottish, where it is fine talking face-to-face but put it over a two-way radio and it can be quite difficult.

"Sometimes we lose messages in interpretation."

Mr Sawyer said AgriTrack took out some of the mistakes of the past, allowing him to see where people were and what they are doing.

"It has probably got a benefit on any farm, but different farms will have different benefits," he said.

"The person that has one machine, even if they are not in the paddock, if they are home having tea they can still see that the machine is seeding in the right paddock.

"But I think the benefit increases once you start getting into multiple numbers of machines.

"Even two machines in the one paddock, at least the other driver can see where the other machine is.

"There is less chance of pieces being missed.

"At seeding time, we picked up on boomsprayers heading into the wrong paddocks, but it's not just for that multi-vehicle farm.

"I think it's fit for even the one-man operation with one casual staff member.

"The manager can go home for the night, take the AgriTrack with him, and have it there knowing that driver is in the right paddock doing the right thing."

Mr Sawyer said the technology stood out on night shift, because it could be difficult for seasonal workers to know their location. "Some of our paddocks are 1200ha and you can't see the other end of the paddock and don't know what the staff are up to," he said.

During the trialling of AgriTrack at seeding, Mr Sawyer said the technology had allowed him to pick up when staff had seeded beyond sprayed areas and had eliminated confusion around patch-spraying.

"Spraying a patch of brome grass or wild oats, where you are doing a uniform paddock, you can mark it out on the screen for the operator," he said.

Another advantage was the ability to synchronise devices from different machinery.

"We deal with multiple dealers so we haven't got all our eggs in one basket," Mr Sawyer said.

"We are running four systems and I would like to get that down to two, because four is a pain in the backside.

"Even if everybody is on the one format they can't be easily synched together.

"On a farm like ours you have multi-formats like Case and John Deere and they aren't compatible.

"For us we were running multiple systems, but we are now putting in this new system purely for the synchronised tracking."

He said the technology didn't aim to be big brother or watch every single movement, but it did hold workers accountable.

"A farmer will set a speed based on conditions and moisture and so on, and he will seed a different speed for each tractor based on row spacings, so it is a good idea to see they are actually sticking to the speeds you have set," he said.

"At night time the chaser driver can see where the headers are (on the map) because when you start getting into 1000ha paddocks and you have two chaser bins and a number of headers, it can be challenging.

"Our longest run is 5.5km, so if you have a header that far away, the chaser driver can talk to the headers and assess which one is full and find exactly where they are on the map.

"It doesn't just provide the data to just one central unit, everyone gets the exact same data so they can all make decisions."

Mr Sawyer admitted AgriTrack would mean another item in the cab, and would not be a suitable solution for every farmer.

"Each operation is going to want something different and you are never going to get two farmers who want the same thing," he said.

"We're just wanting see where the machine is and that it is in the right spot.

"Anything else is a bonus.

"The potential of this is huge."

FarmWeekly

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