Debbie Dowden, Challa station to develop tech with AxisTech

April 29 2022 - 12:00am
Debbie Dowden, Challa station, is keen to help develop new technology solutions to improve the stations long-term sustainability.

SOUTHERN Rangelands pastoralist Debbie Dowden is on the cusp of revolutionising the sustainability of the pastoral industry.

Ms Dowden and husband Ashley own and operate Challa station - a 200,000 hectare cattle property which has been in Mr Dowden's family since 1888.

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The Southern Rangelands isn't known for high productivity like other pastoral regions and the Dowdens have endured many tough periods where they had to restructure their business.

Sustainability has always been front of mind for Ms Dowden and in the past few years she's been working on a natural capital accounting (NCA) project, with the aim of improving her station's long-term sustainability, both in terms of environmental and social licence, as well as business profitability.

AxisTech, along with fellow agtech company CustodianAg, is excited to work with Ms Dowden in developing the technology solutions required for the project.

The project has even placed her as a finalist for this year's AgriFutures WA Rural Woman of the Year Award.

"The Challa Project utilises our pastoral lease as a pilot study into NCA in the Southern Rangelands," Ms Dowden said.

"We will use historical data, rangelands science and remote sensing to help experts develop an appropriate methodology to capture the benefits of natural capital performance and express it in meaningful financial terms."

What is natural capital accounting?

NCA is an emerging methodology that originated from the United Kingdom, used to measure and improve agricultural sustainability, and puts a monetary value on natural resources.

While NCA is still quite new for Australian agricultural systems Ms Dowden said, "it was necessary to establish what NCA looks like in the Australian pastoral environment".

"By monitoring with measurements from NCA, we can determine how best to manage our livestock under a holistic regime using agtech to measure performance and inform management decisions," she said.

Ms Dowden said implementing NCA into pastoral enterprises would be a driving force for them to proving the environmental sustainability to markets, consumers and the broader world.

"It opens the possibility of receiving a premium for our red meat, and for monetisation of the improvements we make to the landscape," she said.

"I hope that we can develop a model and methodology that can be duplicated by pastoralists across the nation and even around the globe."

By working with AxisTech and CustodianAg, Ms Dowden will use an emerging framework known as the Global Farm Metric (GFM), which was developed in the UK and has had proven success overseas.

The GFM aims to help farmers make sustainable decisions and assist governments in setting and monitoring progress towards international sustainability targets for agriculture, leading to a more sustainable future for everyone.

It will provide a common approach to measuring a farm's impact - both positive and negative - on the environment, economy and society by sectioning the farm into several categories of sustainability, of which a score is produced for each category.

The sustainability score identifies the areas that are doing well and where there's room for improvement, enabling farmers to make data-informed decisions to improve their land and business.

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AxisTech managing director Wes Lawrence said his company would utilise its interconnected data platform AxisStream to apply the GFM to Ms Dowden's project.

"We will do the data engineering and data science to facilitate this connection and to use the GFM but be able to adapt it and apply it into a modern Australian digital agricultural context," Mr Lawrence said.

"Collaborating with CustodianAg and using the GFM will not only build a data-driven model for Debbie's NCA project, but will also automate processes for her, deliver metrics generated by real production data and it'll be seamlessly integrated into her broader pastoral operation."

CustodianAg director George Kailis' family has a long history in agriculture and in the food and beverage value chain, both nationally and internationally, and he has been a key driver in bringing the GFM to Australia.

"I have spent the past 20 years understanding and promoting sustainability, have had an influential role in the evolution of the SFT and the development of the GFM and, through a collaboration with tech partner AxisTech, have recently co-founded CustodianAg," Mr Kailis said.

"We are delighted to be working with someone as innovative and passionate as Debbie on her NCA project."

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Mr Kailis said CustodianAg's technology-driven sustainability toolbox, improves the measurement and management of sustainability across the entire food chain.

"Through our partnership with the SFT and GFM we are implementing a data-driven framework of metrics and reporting system that supports a standardised approach and global adoption for measuring sustainability across our food, beverage and fibre producing industries," he said.

"We are excited about the partnership with Debbie and Challa station, and the evolution of this nationally and globally significant project."

Global Farm Metric director Fabia Bromovsky said his team at the Sustainable Food Trust is pleased to have the opportunity to work with CustodianAg to develop the framework for application in Australia.

"A standardised framework for measuring sustainability, a common language, is essential for all farmers across the globe if they are to drive the changes required for more sustainable food and farming systems to address the crisis in climate, nature and health," Ms Bromovsky said.

"To have the ability to trial the GFM provides an amazing opportunity for us to prove the use case in Australia and support widespread adoption."

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It's Ms Dowden's goal to have the Southern Rangelands lead Australia agriculture in using NCA to in-turn increase the longevity of the country's pastoral industry.

"I know we can meet criteria and targets without having to make huge changes to our production systems," she said.

"And I know agtech innovation will make it feasible for properties like ours, with a modest financial turnover, to take a leading role in natural capital accounting.

"We need to arrest the decline in land condition, we need to prove and improve our sustainability, and we need to demonstrate that our production system meets the expectations of the Australian community, consumers, banks, markets and global conditions.

"And I want Challa station to be able to produce high quality red meat in perpetuity for future generations."

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