School visitors explore agricultural science and technology at Dookie agricultural campus

A new generation of secondary school students learned about innovative research and career opportunities in agricultural science at Ag Science in Action at the University of Melbourne’s Dookie campus on 25 February.
PhD researcher Andrew Longmire demonstrates measuring chlorophyll levels in leaves, a predictor of plant health and growth.

Activities and presentations on the day focussed on research and technology being developed and applied in the Goulburn Valley, including the University’s robotic milking system at Dookie campus, microwave technology that safely combats herbicide-resistant weeds and handheld tools that take scientific readings of plant health.

The Year 11 and 12 students, who are enrolled in Assumption College’s agriculture program, also explored case studies, technology and science in five presentations.

Michael Halverson, a 2019 University of Melbourne Bachelor of Agriculture graduate presented on smart farming technology at Agriculture Victoria’s Tatura research facility, where he has gained a role as a Project Officer.

He says emerging technologies will soon transform the industry, making it more sustainable, efficient and transparent.

“I think with the coming about of automation, mechanisation, machine learning and connectivity, we’re fast reaching a point where these technologies will be working together at the touch of a button on farms and through the supply chain,” he says.

One example in use at Tatura is irrigation scheduling driven by machine learning.

“This irrigation system collects real-time data from sensors throughout the smart farm and integrates this into irrigation scheduling that changes based on water stress, soil moisture, daily temperature and humidity and solar radiation,” he says.

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Agriculture Victoria Project Officer Michael Halverson at the University of Melbourne’s Dookie campus orchard.

“That’s an aspect of automation that means a farmer won’t have to go out to the field to turn his irrigation on and calculate how many megalitres of water will need to be applied, which will inevitably reduce water waste.”

The students learned how remote sensing – using sensors on farms or mounted on drones and other aircraft – could be used to monitor the health and productivity of crops in a presentation by Andrew Longmire, who is completing his PhD on this topic at the University of Melbourne.

His PhD research will contribute to the development of hyperspectral remote sensing technology that will allow farmers to rapidly and accurately measure plant health and productivity using airborne sensors, with a focus on measuring wheat protein levels.

“With hyperspectral remote sensing you can see the biological composition of crop plant leaves in great detail and the rates of photosynthesis, for example, so you can get an idea of how effective applications of fertilisers are,” he says.

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Veterinary researcher and educator Stuart Barber discusses how a veterinarian visiting a farm would diagnose and treat a parasite infection in a dairy herd, and prevent future infections through environmental changes.

Mr Longmire hopes that giving farmers the ability to quickly assess this will make crop farms not just more profitable, but more environmentally sustainable, and will encourage more farmers to produce food with a lower environmental footprint.

Sara Hely of the Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre gave a presentation on innovation in agricultural systems, and the University of Melbourne’s Professor Timothy Reeves and veterinarian Dr Stuart Barber presented on sustainable agriculture’s importance to human health and animal health in agriculture respectively.

Jackson Clifford, one of the students attending on the day, said Australian produce is known for its high quality and excellent animal welfare standards, and sees a promising future in the industry.

“Australia can produce more food than we could eat, and we can supply a lot of meat to China, Indonesia and other countries,” says Jackson, who is completing Year 11 at Assumption College in Kilmore.

Jackson Clifford wants to major in animal production at university.

He is gaining experience in agriculture at an animal export quarantine depot and hoping to study in this field when he finishes school.

Jackson says he sees the importance of maintaining high standards of welfare and keeping Australia’s animal agriculture disease free. He’s interested in learning how the industry can be made more efficient through science.

“I’m interested in how farmers can get the maximum production out of their animals with very little input and advanced reproduction.”

Assumption College agriculture program coordinator Frank Pereira said strong agricultural science knowledge is vital to Australia’s future.

“We have to produce more food with less water in a changing climate, and if that’s not a challenge for the younger generation, I don’t know what is.”

Banner image: Students visit the Dookie robotic dairy to observe cows being milked. The dairy monitors the health and productivity of each of the dairy’s 140 cows. Story and photos: Stuart Winthrope.