COWRA, Australia (Reuters) - Farmer James Fagan uses satellites to guide his tractor when it plants his crop in the heart of Australia’s drought-hit eastern wheat belt.
His tractor, working on autosteer and guided by satellite technology, plants the length of the paddock in lines so straight that every centimetre of land is utilised for growing crops.
The Fagan farm, 250 kilometres (150 miles) west of Sydney, is among a growing number of Australian farms that have turned to advanced technology to fight the effects of climate change which threatens their annual crops.
“We’re on a knife-edge,” James’ brother Ed said. “This was a pasture and its just been destroyed over the last five years because of the drought,” he added.
Australian farmers are anxious to adapt their methods to cope with a hotter and dryer climate that has caused the worst drought in living memory, cutting crop yields in one of the world’s biggest agriculture exporters.
At Cowra in the eastern Australia wheat belt, farmers are frantically sowing winter crops after the best April rain in 10 years fell across southern and eastern growing areas in recent weeks.
Like many hard-headed Australian farmers, James Fagan is sceptical about dire warnings of global warming by scientists and politicians. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film “An Inconvenient Truth” is based on “shallow science”, he says, as his tractor drives along in a perfectly straight line.
But Fagan is also convinced that something strange is going on with the weather, and that extreme climate events — typically droughts in Australia’s case — are becoming more frequent.
“It’s scary,” he says, sitting in the cabin of his A$500,000 (210,000 pound) John Deere tractor and disc air seeder as it powers along a field, completing a perfectly straight line with the help of the Global Positioning System (GPS).
Satellite technology is part of a revolution which has boosted yields in Australia’s A$30 billion a year farm export industry by 30 percent over the last 10 years and increased rainwater use efficiency by an estimated 250 percent.
The GPS system guides the tractor and disc seeder to an accuracy of 2 centimetres in cutting slim rows into the earth 25 centimetres (10 inches) apart, seeding and fertilising in one operation.
Alan Umbers of Grains Council of Australia, which represents 35,000 wheat growers, estimates that 60 percent of Australia’s farmlands now use advanced no-till or minimum-till practices, which leave some stubble on the earth after the last harvest.
This replaces ploughing the soil, which causes moisture and nutrient loss, with accurate planting by advanced machinery, often guided by GPS systems, into the stubble-covered areas.
Australia would have produced only 3 million tonnes of wheat last year, instead of the 10 million tonnes it was able to eke from drought-parched lands, if it were using farm practices of the 1970s and early 1980s, Umbers estimates.
Normal annual wheat production is close to 25 million tonnes.
He also estimates that around 20 percent of Australian farmlands are now planted with satellite-guidance systems, although possibly only 5 percent or less of farmers use it.
Vast farmlands in the Australian outback are especially suited to GPS plantings, with some west of Cowra covering 100,000 acres (40,470 hectares) — bigger than some small countries.
“Australia led the world in development of no tillage technology,” Umbers said. “The old days of multiple cultivation and multiple ploughs and burning stubble are long gone.”
In a field in the family’s 1,900 hectary property, Ed Fagan scratches the earth beneath a layer of stubble from last season’s harvest. The soil is moist beneath a dusty surface.
Zero tilling stores moisture where it is most needed — in the ground. It also builds up carbon in the soil.
“We’re taking carbon out of the air and storing it in the ground,” Ed Fagan said, squinting from under a peaked cap.
Historically, soil around Cowra contained 1 percent carbon. Since zero tilling started three seasons ago, the carbon level has increased to 1.5 percent for a 50 percent gain.
Ed Fagan admits it is hard to judge productivity gains, and also that the investment in the GPS-steered tractor and seeder is “a lot of money to drive straight”.
But there are broad benefits. Land degradation is stopped. Water and carbon are stored in the earth. Crops are bigger. Seed wastage is minimal and even weed management is improved.
After years of drought, nearby Wyangala Dam, the biggest regional dam, is down to just 4 percent of its capacity. A small puddle laps the bottom of the 85-meter wall of the dam, which can hold more water than Sydney Harbour.
Peter Watt, Cowra-based agronomist with rural house Elders, praises the Fagans for embracing new technology with open minds.
“It makes sense to harvest the most precious resource, water,” he said.