Making Hay while the FieldExplorer shines: New cutting edge technology to grow the oaten hay sector

23.02.21

A new application of imaging technology is set to revolutionise the way the oaten hay industry determines yield potential and quality in-crop, producing a wave of potential opportunities and benefits up and down the value chain.

Over the past ten years, the Asian protein boom has paid dividends to the Australian oaten hay sector. Between 2013 and 2018 China’s order for our oaten hay increased from 32,000 metric tonnes to 300,000 MT, on the back of a threefold increase in their domestic dairy industry. Japan, Korea and Taiwan are also major trading partners, with Australia currently exporting around $541 million of hay annually (ABARES 2019).

A major issue for the sector has been developing timely, accurate and comprehensive data on crop yield and performance in order inform sellers, farmers and plant breeders about qualities such as sugar and fibre levels and digestible dry matter. Traditionally, measuring yield and quality in oaten hay breeding has been a slow and costly process to implement. Manual hay cuts are taken from a breeding trial, before being oven dried, then processed through two different mills and subjected to laboratory analysis. It’s a laborious exercise that is carried out for early-stage breeding lines at just one trial site in South Australia, despite the oaten hay sector enjoying a strong presence in regions across Western Australia and Victoria.

“Due to limited resources, we’re only able to sample biomass and quality from a small  number of oaten hay genotypes each year and therefore have a very limited understanding of the genetic variation for these traits,” said Dr Tim Sutton.

“Given that we only take detailed measurements from one trial site a year, it has been difficult to combine high biomass with enhanced hay quality. We’re also missing valuable information about how different environmental conditions and management practices can affect hay yield and quality.”

Dr Sutton, Principal Scientist for Crop Improvement at the Department of Primary Industries and Regions research division South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), has been leading the charge to identify a way around the issue. Now, with funding from AgriFutures Australia, testing of new technology that could offer a solution is well underway.

Developed in partnership with a company from the Netherlands, and brought here by the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility, the FieldExplorer is an in-field detection device that uses sensing technologies to determine key performance indicators of a crop. It uses three types of sensors – an RGB camera gathers information about leaf colour and disease, a LiDAR sensor develops information about biomass and crop height, and two hyperspectral cameras work to track information about crop quality. The device surveys the crop or breeding trial plots at a speed of 1.5 metres per second, developing data and findings in real-time in a non-invasive manner.

FieldExplorer trail – A world-first machine to speed up and improve the way scientists and plant breeders take plant measurements in the field. Pictured at Turretfield, SA. Picture: Tim Sutton

FieldExplorer – A world-first machine to speed up and improve the way scientists and plant breeders take plant measurements in the field. Pictured at Adelaide University’s Waite Campus. Picture: Naomi Jellicoe

While these sensors have been deployed as agricultural tools previously, the FieldExplorer combines their use to develop a richer picture.

“The major feature of the FieldExplorer is the speed at which it works – it generates significantly more information than is possible with the current manual methods. With quicker access to information about yield and quality, breeders will be able to make faster, more informed decisions about the breeding process. Growers and processors will also be able to utilise the information to better match hay qualities to the requirements of buyers and markets.,” said Dr Sutton.

Extending past market access, developing a better understanding about the performance of oaten hay crops offers benefits to the wider value chain. A more thorough picture of crop performance over different environments will support the outputs from plant breeding and, in turn, crop performance through improved varieties. In addition, the interaction between variety genetics, region-specific environmental factors and different management strategies can be optimised to help farmers to select and grow the best variety for their system.

In 2020, the FieldExplorer surveyed a SARDI oaten hay breeding trial at Gawler in South Australia, gathering the first of three years’ data in an effort to calibrate the technology. Data generated by the FieldExplorer will be compared with laboratory test results to calibrate the machine and determine spectral signatures for quality traits relevant to the oaten hay sector.

“The financial contribution of Agrifutures Australia has enabled us to access and value-add technology for the oaten hay industry. Levy funders have committed to this project which gives us access to technology, leveraging a significant investment made by others that the sector wouldn’t otherwise be able to access,” added Dr Sutton.

“It has paved the way for the adoption of current and future technology trends in oaten hay and plant breeding more broadly.”

For more information on this project and the Export Fodder Program visit agrifutures.com.au/export-fodder