With IT-based agriculture changing the way farming can be done, Lincoln University has developed a new programme to teach people the latest techniques.
IT-based farming, known as precision agriculture, involves using technologies such as sensors to carry out soil or crop mapping. This allows farmers to use real-time data to place nutrients, fertilisers and chemicals with much more accuracy than would otherwise be possible.
The University has recently begun offering a specialised second-year course in precision agriculture, currently the only course of its kind in the country.
“This new IT world is more than just computerising existing farming,” says adjunct professor Dr Armin Werner, who runs the course and also works as the precision agriculture group manager at Lincoln Agritech Limited.
“New approaches and tools are available to be used in all agricultural production systems, leading to important changes in the way farms are managed.”
Dr Werner says precision agriculture improves profitability and benefits the environment, because water, nutrients and energy can be used exactly where needed and nowhere else, which enhances efficiency and reduces losses.
Lincoln University’s precision agriculture course is part of a new Bachelor of Science (majoring in Agritech) programme.
Department of Informatics and Enabling Technologies Head Dr Stuart Charters says the programme was established in 2013 to meet the growing demand for skilled staff who understand the demand of precision agriculture technologies.
“The programme gives students the knowledge and skills they need to be involved with the next generation of precision agriculture technologies.”
Dr Werner says precision agriculture has a bright future in New Zealand, due to the efficiency of our agricultural industry.
“Having a high proportion of agricultural jobs in a highly-developed country is a unique combination. There’s a good chance New Zealand could be a forefront developer of new technologies in this area. This would benefit our own primary industry and could result in serious exports of well-proven technologies for agriculture.”
A Lincoln University agricultural science graduate knows exactly how valuable precision agriculture can be to farmers.
Since graduating, Jemma Mulvihill has been working at the helm of a thriving family business that uses precision agriculture to help Kiwi farmers work smarter.
Ms Mulvihill graduated in 2009 and by the next year, she and her farmer parents had set up the company, Agri Optics New Zealand Ltd.
She first learnt about precision agriculture when she attended Colorado State University for a year as part of Lincoln’s Global Mobility programme in 2008.
She discovered how well the new technology was working in the US and wanted to bring her newfound knowledge home to New Zealand farms.
“Studying abroad was invaluable. Without that opportunity, and it tying back into my undergrad degree, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Ms Mulvihill says Agri Optics aims to provide clients with the best and most up-to-date precision agriculture products and solutions available globally, with a particular focus on crop sensors and farm and field mapping technology.
“This ensures the farmer gets the most ‘bang for their buck’, while still ensuring environmental sustainability,” Ms Mulvihill says. “It also helps them to make more detailed and targeted decisions for their farm or field.”
Ms Mulvihill’s job involves a lot of technical computer work with Geographic Information System (GIS) programs and controllers, which capture, store and analyse spatial or geographical data.
“No one day is the same,” she says. “Some days I am in the office, analysing data, and other days I can be out in the field taking soil samples or installing soil moisture probes.
“The job is very IT-based, so good computer literacy while still understanding the practical side is very important.”