Innisfail GPS project saving growers in the paddock and the hip pocket

By John Flynn

Picture a scene from the future …it’s 7.00pm on an August evening in the rolling cane fields along Henderson Drive near Innisfail and as the sun disappears behind Pin Gin Hill, the harvester driver settles in for a couple more hours at the controls.

Briefly, he glances in the direction of the South Johnstone Mill where lights are glowing and bins are being turned over long into the night. Then it’s back to work, pressing an icon on the touch-screen menu to activate auto-steer before keeping a close eye on the topper as his GPS-guided harvester follows a near perfect line along the row.

A couple of kilometres away, a differential GPS base station is quietly doing its job, providing a fixed reference point for an armada of satellites orbiting in the heavens, calculating the position of the harvester to a relative accuracy of 2.5 centimetres as it cuts its way along the row.

If it all sounds like science fiction, it isn’t. Nor is it some abstract concept being mapped out for the distant future. To be correct, it’s the technology of today made possible by rocket science, delivering the navigation systems of the future right now to the farms of the Innisfail cane growing district. As futuristic as the notion of hands-free, semi-robotic farm machinery may sound, the reality is that space-age GPS technology, capable of delivering significant productivity benefits and improved environmental outcomes for farmers in the Innisfail district will be rolled out in time for this year’s planting and harvesting season. It’s all part of an exciting project being undertaken by CANEGROWERS Innisfail and funded through the federal government’s Reef Rescue initiative.

“There was an opportunity for Reef Rescue funding for a mill area project and it was matched 50/50 with a federal government grant and then industry contribution,” CANEGROWERS Innisfail Extension Officer and Reef Rescue coordinator Debra Telford explains.

“So we submitted one in round five of Reef Rescue to put GPS base stations or supply GPS signals to the entire mill area for the CANEGROWERS Innisfail district.”

Canegrower Joe Marano

Canegrower Joe Marano

Over the coming months, and in partnership with local suppliers Honeycombes (John Deere dealers) and TDC Electrical, CANEGROWERS Innisfail will be establishing a network of GPS base stations across the district. The rollout will cater for existing users and those farmers who are tractor-ready to tap into either the John Deere Starfire system or the variety of agricultural GPS systems operating via compact measurement record protocols.

Best of all, establishing the base stations as a mill area project will represent a substantial cost saving for growers who are interested in accessing proven technology that provides the high degree of navigational accuracy needed to make agricultural GPS systems work effectively. Considering that the cost to an individual farmer of establishing a GPS base station on their own is in the vicinity of $17,000, the opportunity to access the CANEGROWERS GPS base station network at a fraction of that figure will represent a substantial cost saving to the individual grower.

“It’s about making it more affordable, it needed someone to take the initiative and we’ve taken the initiative to put it together,” CANEGROWERS Innisfail Chairman Joe Marano said.

“It’s saving each grower $17,000.”

As an early adopter of agricultural GPS technology, Mr Marano has been progressively phasing GPS into his operations since 2006 with positive results. Mr Marano first engaged GPS with planting and spraying. The benefits were immediate.

“When we’re spraying now, we don’t spray unless we’re using GPS,” Mr Marano said.

“We don’t have strips missed that haven’t been sprayed and we don’t overlap the spray because you’re going down that same track all the time and you’ve got the correct width in there and it makes it so much easier.”

Potential benefits stemming from GPS, including reduced fuel usage, less damage to the stool, less unnecessary tillage, and minimised controlled use of fertiliser and herbicide also means good news for the environment.

As another plus, the fact that data is constantly being stored by the GPS means that less effort is needed with paperwork to document chemical usage as much of the data is readily available.