Transcript of the Assessing seasonal conditions with Agriculture Victoria’s soil moisture monitoring dashboard webinar

Heather Field:

Okay. Hello, everyone and welcome to today's webinar, which is on assessing seasonal conditions with Agriculture Victoria's soil monitoring dashboard. My name is Heather Field and I'm a climate change service development officer with Agriculture Victoria and we'll be facilitating today's webinar. Before our presenters begin, just a few housekeeping items. This webinar is being recorded and will be made available after today. You are muted just to stop background noise so if you do have a question, please use the chat function, which is currently explained on your screen and we'll make some time at the end of the presentations for questions. There will be a quick survey following the webinar today and it'll just take only a minute to complete and we greatly appreciate your assistance in completing that.

Heather Field:

Before I commence, I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands and water on which we are meeting and pay my respects to elders, past, present and emerging. I'm tuning in from Ballarat, the lands of the Wadawurrung people, and I'd like to acknowledge all the lands in which everyone is tuning in from today. We've got three presenters today, Dale Boyd from Agriculture Victoria, Rob Shea, who is the Perennial Pasture Systems farmer group project manager, and Tony Roberts, a Perennial Pasture Systems group member and monitoring site host. First up, I'm pleased to introduce Dale Boyd, who is a seasonal risk agronomist in the grains team within Agriculture Victoria, based out of Echuca, and is the soil monitoring dashboard coordinator. Dale has worked with the department for over 20 years and, during that time, has worked on a range of projects linked to monitoring soil moisture, irrigated cropping, and the current seasonal risk work.

Heather Field:

Agriculture Victoria's soil moisture monitoring dashboard was launched last year and has seen some recent upgrades. Today, Dale will provide those updates and share some of the key highlights from the monitoring points from around the state. Thanks, Dale. Over to you.

Dale Boyd:

Thank you, Heather, and welcome everyone. Today, I'll do a presentation on soil moisture monitoring and, as Heather said, we've done some updates to the dashboard that was released a bit over 12 months ago so very happy to be presenting about one of my favorite topics, discussing soil moisture, and the other one's digging holes and validating that data. I'll go through that. I guess, going back about 18 months, I was very appreciative to get some funding through the Victorian government's 2019/2020 Drought Support Package to implement a dashboard. A soil moisture dashboard was something that I've certainly been thinking about for a considerable amount of time prior because we'd certainly had monitoring points that I'd collected and were able to display great sets of data going back almost 10 years at the time but it had sort of evolved to a point where looking to take the next step and the dashboard certainly enabled me to do that because, initially, it was grains work, monitoring cropping sites, and then there was a pilot looking at pasture sites and we were probably just having some issues, looking to display both but looking to have the capacity to distinguish between certainly two different monitoring systems, that being the annual growth phase of the winter crops and obviously the Perennial Pastures had the capacity to grow all year round.

Dale Boyd:

Hence there was the development of the dashboard. The dashboard had some key features that there was no logging required, rather to display and list the particular crops that were going and pastures that were growing at the sites, which is so important to have that reference and by knowing what crop is growing or what pasture is growing, it will really reflect in the way that the moisture's used at certain points of the year. There was certainly the capacity to add some education material as well because I think the next step for soil moisture monitoring and the dashboard is to properly list all the soil types that are being monitored and just that water holding capacity of those soils. It's so important because it certainly does vary from up in the top of the Mallee, some low water holding capacity soils, moving down into your clays and clay [inaudible 00:09:42] in Central Victoria, which may hold 140 ml, which is sort of double some of those Mallee soils.

Dale Boyd:

And also, I guess, the soil moisture, that was a known known but we're also looking to include the other data sources and certainly the display from the seasonal risk team of that seasonal outlook and just simply display that because they both go hand in hand when you're looking to make those informed decisions and that was what the dashboard was about in proving that decision making capacity. And certainly by ... We'd done the review with our audience and found that the speedos were certainly ranked one of the highest components of areas of interest. And so, by having the dashboard, we could automatically update that on a daily function. Season of variability, when you look back at the data sets, it just shows certainly the extremes we've been experiencing, not just recently but when you look back and we've got this data collected from the northeast going back 10 years, it just shows the variability.

Dale Boyd:

And I guess this is also an opportunity just to go through the analysis of the trend lines that we use with the soil moisture graphs and this, in particular instance, is with the summed graph of soil moisture where we're combining all the eight senses and they're in that soil profile to give us a total sum of the soil moisture. Over that time, we've certainly established a fuel capacity point where you go above that, you can reach a saturation but, just below that is where the plant available water starts to come into play and certainly monitored over a range of seasons. We've been able to determine the lowest recorded soil moisture and so that effect becomes the wilting point. And so, the green area here is essentially the plant available water zone and we can look back and see these challenging years of 2013 to 2015 and then the better years and the better years really present the opportunities to capitalize on the seasonal conditions and 2016, 2020 and progressing, as we are now, in 2021.

Dale Boyd:

And I should say that we can look at this long term analysis but, at times, there's some petty extreme rain events that may be falling out of the cropping season but then they could be followed up with extended periods of dry and if that's the future we're going to be farming in, such a critical analysis and measuring point to have of the probe detecting these changes over time. In terms of the dashboard, one of the pretty significant improvements we've been able to make is that, I guess, data has been so important to be collected from the field and transmitted to the server but we found with the dashboard that there was just a lot of data to be brought online to display the request from the server that's housed in Melbourne. What we've been able to do with the update is to actually put the case of the data on a side server so that if you're looking to put in a request of saying, "I want to look at a site of soil moisture for this particular region."

Dale Boyd:

Instead of putting that request to the server in Melbourne, essentially the data's already been brought across, it's been cased, and it's a small update and hopefully, if you'd been looking at the dashboard, those displays will come up quicker. Of course, it all depends on the internet speeds at the time but it's been a real advantage, is to quicken the speed to access data and have those displays coming online. And so, I think everyone can acknowledge it's a real source of frustration, slowness. This data display is still shown so it's got to be in the background but, yeah, we've found that the dashboard is now the simplistic way to get all the things you need to know about the seasonal conditions. There's a couple of ways of obtaining that data. The first one is certainly to get on the agriculture.vic.govt.au/soilmonitoringsite and once on that site, you can see a lot of information about the project work we've been doing with the monitoring points but we can access the data, clicking on that will then bring you to the extension of soil moisture dashboard.

Dale Boyd:

This is the old dashboard display that we had. A drop down menu to get an indication of all the sites but you could click on that and you could highlight whether you had particular interest in looking at the pasture sights, which were the blue ones, or zooming in and looking at the cropping sites and obviously they got that annual growth pattern through winter. By hovering over the icons, you could get a quick pop up and you could get an immediate response to get this display, which is effectively the fuel gauge indicating what the soil moisture conditions were, which we indicated by the black needle and some reference points to what the soil moisture conditions were a month ago and a year ago as they're critical components to get those comparisons of whether you're improving soil moisture and whether it's been improving in the last month and the other one is just to compare where you were this time last year.

Dale Boyd:

That's the old display. I'm pretty happy to now move to the new display we've got with the dashboard. Instead of ... You can still certainly highlight and isolate your particular sites of interest, whether they're cropping or grazing, or you can just look at all sites but, essentially, these icons are showing the soil moisture by percentage and it can provide some indications of how the season's tracking to regions because, essentially, it's a heat map. This was taken a few days ago and why I probably like this overview map and the soil moisture percentages popping up all at once because it can also show some anomalies. Down in Gibbs Land there, we actually had a probe that had a fault in it so that's why it was red when it was actually a wet site so I've been able to deactivate that site. And it's been a fairly challenging year up in the Millewa as well.

Dale Boyd:

The site at Werrimull, you might think, "Well, why is that green? Why has that still got moisture in?" That's because if you can click on that icon, it will pop up that it actually had two inches of rain at the very start of the year. It's a very quick snapshot and I'm very happy with the way it came along. All this data is stored on the server in Melbourne but the new addition to the dashboard is that I've been working with the Perennial Pasture Systems group and Rob Shea and with some funding a few years ago, we had the capacity to do some soil moisture, I guess, product development where we were looking to then display or simplify the soil moisture collected at those sites and, to be honest, they're ripping sites in terms of the accuracy of data, it's a really solid data set.

Dale Boyd:

And so, we're able to implement that speedo meter function of the fuel gauge, which was produced by an Excel sheet. Found out to be fairly time consuming so that's where by merging this data into the dashboard, those speedos can just automatically come up once you click on those icons. I also work in the seasonal risk team with Graeme, Jemma and Dale and when Dale's going through his monthly assessments of soil moisture conditions, you'll hear him pay reference to the PTS group as well so that's where Dale can then pretty easily get those percentages of soil moisture and then provide that indication of what the change has been in the past month.

Dale Boyd:

That was displaying soil moisture mapping of street view. The other functions we've got with the dashboard is you can look at the modeled soil moisture from the aura model and that could be by modeled soil moisture or the anomaly so by just clicking on that with the drop down menu, you can actually find how the modeled soil moisture is and how the measured soil moisture is matching up to that. The other function that I'll look to discuss this afternoon is the crop yield calculator and to find that on the dashboard, it's essentially the tile just underneath the map. Now, most of the functions on the dashboard probably work better on a desktop but for this crop yield calculator, it certainly has been merged into the dashboard to be predominantly used by a smart device or a smart phone to be taken into the paddock.

Dale Boyd:

Where it all come about was that I thought the concept was that we're monitoring the seasonal conditions, monitoring soil moisture, and this is in the interests of cropping. Once we get into the critical grow stages of head development, flowering and then the grain fill, I just thought, "Why can't we go out and do some critical analysis with numbers and get a determination of what the projected crop yield could be based on doing some assessments in the field?" If we're looking at the flowering period, how successful it's going to be, you could look at the soil moisture, see how that's tracking, and then you could look at the crop development and just see how many of those grains were successfully flowering and then progressing into that grain filled period.

Dale Boyd:

I'd certainly acknowledge the assistance I got from Collin Peace as well and the GIAV because for a number of years now, in October, we've gone out and done the crop transact tour and what we found out early on was doing those assessments in crop in the morning, we found that the paper was getting wet, writing things down was just not conducive so there was the advancement for GIAV to then have a subscription based web application and an application to go into calculating crop yields. Found it great because you could go into a paddock, you'd get the immediate feedback by doing the counts with a few other people. Essentially, what the crop yield calculator is doing is determining the crop density and the crop density is being determined by row spacing by the tiller count and the tillers that then have successfully produced viable heads.

Dale Boyd:

And once you determine the crop density, you can then critically analyze how the heads are developing to get the other factor that's quite important is the number of grains per head. Instead of just driving past a paddock and thinking, "It seems like the bio mass is there, the heads are developing quite well." We've found very good benefits in going in there and actually doing the physical counts. As I said, move this crop yield estimator into your smart device and, ideally, add it to your home screen so then, that way, it sort of pops up as an app, as a form of an app. And so, when you're in the paddock, you can just essentially click on that and it takes you straight to the extension of crop yield calculator.

Dale Boyd:

Once you're in the paddock with the crop yield calculator on your phone, then it's just a matter of having a measuring device, the Stanley two meter tape measure is fantastic and it's a way of measuring out 50 centimeters and counting the drill rows, the number of heads down the drill row. Counting up one side and down the other side. Doing that in six representative points across your paddock is the way to determine the density of your crop and using your tape measure, you can also double check what you're sowing row spacing is but if you're using your own air seeder, you will actually know that. Once you've got six counts, then it's a matter of plucking six heads, six representative heads, that you've assessed by doing the half meter count and then just counting the number of successful grain fill points within that head.

Dale Boyd:

And this is a ... Generally, you can start an opportunity to do this in mid-October, crops still flowering then so can be a bit of a challenge. Where we are progressed to now, crop going into sort of soft grain fill, it's a lot easier but it's certainly quite important to do because some recent inspections into crop, you might see that this wheat head had potential to fill eight to nine wide, probably a frosting event has certainly taken away that yield potential at the top there. Wheat being a great compensator, doing the grain counts for this head, it's looking at one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and it's the counts that are done just on the half head as well.

Dale Boyd:

Then it's just a matter of putting that into the crop yield calculator, drop down menu, selecting wheat, your row spacing, your head counts, six of those half head counts will then come up with your head density and then your estimated crop yield. A feature we've got with this is that you can either take a screenshot of that or by clicking on send, you can actually send the email to yourself for a record of those measurements and I'd certainly recommend linking your agronomist and crop advisor as well into that information collection as well. And I'm always happy to get feedback of how crop performance has gone so feel free to link me in but, essentially, what you enter into this is all private and whoever you wish to share it with is the only person who will get visibility.

Dale Boyd:

It's a crop yield calculator for cereals so it also works quite well with barley and we find with barley, doing the half head counts, it's a lot easier than the wheat because it's two row barley, pretty easy to do these counts and 15 grains on this particular barley head that was assessed just recently. That's all for the updates of the Ag Vic dashboard from my perspective but I'd like now to hand over to Rob Shea with the Perennial Pasture Systems group.

Heather Field:

Thanks, Dale. That was great just to see the new updates and the dashboard and learn a bit more about the crop yield calculator. We will come to questions shortly so just pop those in the chat box as you get to them and we'll hand over to Rob Shea and Tony Roberts now and Rob Shea is the Perennial Pasture Systems farmer group project manager and for those who are not aware of the Perennial Pasture Systems group, it's a farmer group that was formed in the upper Wimmera in 2007 and currently has a membership of 135 farm businesses and the aim of the group is to push the boundaries of perennial pasture, research across central Victoria and the southern Wimmera and provide information on productive pasture management to members. And Tony Roberts farms at Glenlofty, which is northeast of Ararat and is a long term member of the Perennial Pasture Systems group and was on the management committee and president for two years.

Heather Field:

I will hand over first off to Rob who's going to share some of the history of the sites and how the probes are used and then Tony will explain how he uses the probes in his decision making. Over to you, Rob.

Rob Shea:

Thanks, Heather. Hello, everyone. Thanks for your interest. PPS started with the soil probes via another group actually, the Winslow Land Care Group had a funding, which they called the Paradise Soil Health Project and they'd fitted some probes probably around 2010. We got involved in a joint project and they become members of our group as well and our people saw, or the rest of the PPS group, saw the probes and played a lot of interest. We were able to get some funding through Wimmera CMA and Glenelg Hopkins CMA to fit another five probes and since that, a couple of land care groups, Cowlands had fitted a couple of probes, plus we got two more just coming to fruition at the moment. They're not on the system yet, waiting to calibrate them. And the Concongella Land Care Group are also looking at a couple of probes.

Rob Shea:

That pushes our network currently up to 10 online with a couple more to come on. It is hoped that we will get some more. The Wimmera CMA have got a federal government Future Drought Fund Project, which is expanding the probe network so that's pretty exciting news. We're working on that with them at the moment so that'll extend it through the Wimmera CMA region including the southern bit, which is our group. Just we seemed to miss a slide there, Dale. Yes, that one. Just for those who aren't familiar with the probes, you can see there the green bit, or the greeny blue bit, that goes into the ground. It's got a cable that hooks up to a transponder, it is quite vulnerable to air seeders for those who are in that business. We had a bit of an incident last year but it goes through to a transponder.

Rob Shea:

Ours are now all got solar panels to keep the battery charged. We were able to get help from Wimmera and Glenelg Hopkins last year to do that and North Central have just supported us through a land care grant so the last three will be fitted soon so that takes away any battery issues. We have had a few issues with connectivity, which has been chewing our batteries so that should solve that and the next step, some of the probes, especially land care ones are fitted with automatic weather stations which provide a fair bit of data. Our area goes from north in Paradise, the ones I spoke about, down to the south. The southernmost one is at Dobie on the basalt soils. Just a pretty picture of the northern site, I think everyone's enjoying good clover pictures this year and that's one of the best, that's at Cresswell at Beazley's Bridge and that's looking fabulous.

Rob Shea:

That's on an alluvial soil near the Avon River. It's got a couple of sites in that sort of soil and they do tend to fill up fairly quickly but also fall away very quickly so they're very interesting sites. The most southern site is at Quamby at Dobie and it's on basalt soil, which shows a contrast in the cracking soils, the heavy soils. They take a long time to fill but then a fair while to empty so down there, that Phalaris will probably go till Christmas so a real contract between soil and climate types.

Rob Shea:

On their own, soil probes are interesting but reporting is the important bit and I'll go clockwise. In the top left hand corner is an example of the four or five graphs for each site that people can get emailed to them weekly but you multiply that by 10 sites and you got about 50 graphs to have a look at. They're a pretty handy system for the host farmers and maybe those close by but overall, as a group, they're probably just too much information coming in, which was instructed to, by our management committee, to try and advance things and that was when we got some support from the three CMAs, again, to work with Dale and we ended up with the speedos, which we put out periodically and with moisture reports. We put about six or seven of those out during the growing season. That's a site, it's still there like Lonsdale. Yeah, that's from last year but it's looking pretty good this year although it did have a dry period in September, which no one else seemed to ...

Rob Shea:

The next step is what Dale's been talking about today so our sites are now live 24/7. There's still a couple to come online because we're still getting calibrations right. You need to get them wet and dry so that the results are meaningful and hopefully we can do that in the next 12 months and get them on as well but you'll be able to look that up at any time along with the other sites on the Ag Vic network. The next step for us was we were able to get a Smart Farms Grant, what we call our Informed Decisions Project. Working with Jane Court from Ag Vic, with a bit of input from Dale and a few others, and also Dr. Madison Robinson at Federation University, and we're putting out periodical reports based on the soil moisture readings that we've got, the BoM outlook for three months and Jane is doing runs with the CSIRO GrassGro Pasture Predictor Program and we're putting out pasture predictions a month at a time during spring and that's the current one which it's probably showing what we might all know on a year like this.

Rob Shea:

Things were pretty good, decile seven, so plenty of growth but it is still interesting, there's a pretty rapid fall away that's been picked up through the soil moisture so we think they're going to be valuable for good seasons but invaluable in tough seasons. We're hoping to formulate trigger points for action. I'm an ex farmer, as a lot of you might know, and I've been caught in dry years by that hope for another half inch of rain and when it comes, it does no good. That's because the soil moisture on top and on bottom doesn't match up. We're trying to look when people are maybe getting into trouble in tough springs and they can formulate an action plan rather than waiting that month or few weeks too late. That's where we've got to with our projects. Probably into the future, one of the things that we are looking at and we have found restrictive, we've got the single probes on individual farms.

Rob Shea:

Hopefully, with some funding applications, we can duplicate probes so that we can measure two or three paddocks on the same farm and compare between perennials and annuals or high powered rye grass and loose and just to pick up some more data of what the individual plants are doing on farm so become more applicable to the whole farm. That's probably enough of what the group are doing, I'll hand over to Tony, who has been using the probes fairly intensely and he loves graphs he tells me. But Tony has got a farm at Glenlofty, which is to the northwest of Elmhurst in a valley there. It's a lovely farm and Tony runs it very well and we had a major project there, the Greenfield's Project, which Tony might introduce so over to you, Tony.

Tony Roberts:

Thanks very much, Rob, and good afternoon, everyone too. I hope everyone's having a good season and that some of you are even managing to get your hay cured. Big shout out to those people too that are also supporting Movember, I don't always look like this but anyway, the month's upon us. Thanks, Dale and Rob, for your insights into the soil probe networks and the yield predictors, certainly a really interesting project across a really wide area so a lot of valuable information coming in. As Rob said, a bit of background about myself, our farm's at Glenlofty, it's just out of Elmhurst on rising clays giving way to some steep hills, as you can see there in the photo. We're on a bit of 24 inch rainfall in the old money and we've got about 900 acres there on that farm. Our focus is on lamb production, based on our perennial pasture base.

Tony Roberts:

My challenge is to continually increase the pasture growth shoulders into early winter and summer and we are a host site of one of the probes there that makes up part of a network. The probe is based centrally on our place at the Greenfield's site. It's one of Perennial Pasture's trial sites. This particular project looks at the cost and payback period of taking a rundown block of ground and turning it into really high performing perennial based land production system. Question is what do we use the probe info for? Well, the short version take home message is that it helps us make our decisions. The longer story really is this, to be frank, we're faced with making decisions numerous times every day. Some of these are obviously bigger and they're greater risk and more significant outcomes than others but the key here is how do you make your decisions? And it's a little different for everyone.

Tony Roberts:

Ken Solley is an aid consultant that Perennial Pastures was fortunate enough to have present one of our conferences. His view and certainly one that I share is that all decisions, you use your gut and your head. You gut feel is what your experience and your personal values immediately tell you and then you use your head to support or dismiss it with facts, figures and calculations. As Rob said, I do like graphs, I'm also an accountant by trade so I sort of like the facts and figures as well. I guess when you take all these and you put it into balance, you then become comfortable with settling on your decision and a way forward so think of it like a set of scales really, is that when you add the information to either side of it, it eventually tips in favor of pursuing something or not pursuing it.

Tony Roberts:

Where needed, the soil probe info provides me with some facts and figures to support my gut feel. Primarily, the probes have info on two of the biggest common determinants of pasture growth, being moisture and soil temperature. We'll just get Dale to go to the next slide, please. Oh, yep. Here's the pasture growth at Greenfield's, we often use animals to rate the height of the pasture. This is our current dog height, it's going really well. Might shoot to the next one too, thanks, Dale. These graphs indicate how much moisture we've got in the bank at a given point and it also shows the historical trending, which gives an idea, on average, where we'll see this fill and also deplete so you can see they're right at the top when we get to the fill point there and obviously, as farmers, you will know it's fundamental that in autumn and winter, we see soil moistures increase and fill and then in spring and summer, the growth draws this moisture out as the plants actively grow and the soil temperatures rise.

Tony Roberts:

These graphs obviously highlight that and you can see some of those years, that really drops off quite sharply and to Rob's earlier presentation, we're seeing that happen in those other graphs as well. Realistically, this system can be viewed like a battery charging and then discharging again. The challenge is really how do you use this to your advantage? You'll appreciate that if we get a cut off spring, this moisture can draw down really quickly. The plants will start to get stressed and then go reproductive earlier than normal and, as a result of that, we'll see decrease in our nutritional quality and these sort of factors might well help you make a decision to offload stock earlier as well. Likewise, and as was this year, and I might get you to go through the next couple of slides, thanks, Dale. Probably what's important with this one is on the left hand side there, we've got the soil temperature side of things, that compliments the graph that we saw before and the moisture bars next to it there showing the deciles of where we're at with the existing soil moisture.

Tony Roberts:

This is obviously a very good situation at the moment that read plenty of moisture and a rising temperature as well. What was the case this year, for us, is that I used the full soil moisture profile that we've got and the weather forecast that it's showing, La Nina conditions are the next few months, to settle my decision to sow or Rape and Millet crop, which will help us finish off some later spring lambs. If we go to the next slide there, Dale, we can see that this photo on the right hand side shows the Millet and Rape about two weeks old so that's been put in on the basis of the fact that we knew what the moisture was and that, for those that have sown Millet in the past, respect the fact that it needs to be sown in rising temperature, 12-14 degrees is ideal, and the probes have that information for you right on hand.

Tony Roberts:

My decision making was really we needed to fill this gap, we knew that we had soil moisture in the bank and that we needed something with a bit of power to finish off the lambs so a summer crop was on the cards. This just helped us get across the line, change those scales, if you like, in favor of getting the drill out and putting that in the ground but the drill is successful and hopefully it'll materialize into a good fiber cropping in the next few weeks. And the photo on the left there and probably the final comment I've really got is that this shows a whole fast GT Phalaris that was sown in mid-September, based on the same principles. What we'd actually had happen was a failure in this paddock. We'd put in arrow leaf clover and with the winter that we had was just exceptional as far as rainfall goes.

Tony Roberts:

It actually drowned the crop basically and, as a result of that, we had an opportunity to go into spring with something. This paddock was going to go into a Perennial Pasture in the following year, next yeah. However, the planets lined up for us to consider putting them in this year, we were able to get another knockdown, get on top of more of the weeds, and then go in with Phalaris. I generally do not sow Phalaris this late. However, I really did think it was worth the gamble based on the moisture that we had and, again, the weather outlook. I think you'd agree that that's got a fairly good establishment with another two inches of rain that's just come on it and I'd argue that's been an indicated decision and we'll get a good result out of that.

Tony Roberts:

I guess, in conclusion, the probes provide very useful data that's being used as a manager to support your decisions and, as I said, with the network that we've got, even if they're not quite on your place, then you can still glean some good data from having that local information and knowing what the soil profiles and the like are. Thanks for that and I'll hand back to Heather and the rest of the panel. Thank you.

Heather Field:

Great, thank you, Tony and Rob. That's been terrific just to hear a little bit more about how the group is using the probes and get some of your thoughts, Tony, and how it's helping you with your decision making. We do have plenty of time for questions, which is terrific, and we have got a couple that have come in so far. Did you want to share those last couple of slides, Dale, or go to questions first?

Dale Boyd:

Yeah, it's probably just following up from what Tony said. If you're fortunate enough to have a moisture probe on your property, obviously you're monitoring the crop or pasture, you can physically see that growing, you know the soil type that's being measured but it's about getting those right expectations of what the moisture probes can deliver. It's a point in time measurement but it's not that forecast projected moving forward so that's where you're looking to take in all the other sources of information that you look to utilize, plus a bit of your gut feel of how the season's going, to do those projections moving forward. The dashboard is simply a way of simply explaining some of those things of soil temperature, moisture, and that seasonal outlook so we're pretty happy with the final product of that so certainly like to thank the team that's helped me got to the point where it is today and particularly Jemma Pearl who's working WordPress and a lot of things in that backend of the dashboard. We can take questions from here, if you like, Heather.

Heather Field:

Great. Thanks, Dale. We do have a few questions that have come in now. The first one is to you, Dale, about where the probes are located. Wendy has noticed that there seems to be a bit of a hole around the Warrnambool area and is wondering if there's any plans to add more soil moisture monitoring sites.

Dale Boyd:

Probably when you critically analyze the whole state, there's quite a few holes. In particular, parts of districts and regions. At this stage, at Vic, we've determined the concept of soil monitoring works, the probes are a great concept and I guess, pleasingly now, I'm actually starting to see that private investment and that's where you do get the full benefit that you're monitoring a particular paddock and soil type and pastoral crop, highly relevant to you because it's on your property. I think that's the next step. I can certainly provide some guidance of the investment and on that extension dashboard, there's actually a few tiles about some assistance in selecting the right device and your expectations and how to get those expectations delivered from your service provider when purchasing probes.

Dale Boyd:

I think that's the next step. There will be always gaps and hoping those gaps are going to be filled by the host farmers themselves.

Heather Field:

Thanks, Dale. A question probably for Tony, do you have any issues with connectivity to the probes and what different connectivity options are you using?

Tony Roberts:

In the early days, I think we did have some issues with it and Rob's probably well versed to answer as well but we've sorted those out and then the battery life was an issue as well so we've now got solar panels on those so we're finding that they're actually fairly robust these days. Yeah, would that be a fair comment, Rob?

Rob Shea:

Yeah. Battery life is three to five years. That can vary but, yeah, we had issues last year through north of Ararat where there was a change to 5G or 4G or one of the G's and it did seem to affect service but what it did was the battery, the transponders weren't connecting well and they were trying to connect all the time and that chewed up batteries. One of them lasted three months, which is why we've gone with solar panels. They're the solution to that. The device themselves aren't foolproof, there's little things can go wrong with it. Birds and sheep and things like that and I did mention before, air seeders can play a bit of havoc with them so they do need a bit of maintenance but the solar panels are probably the answer to a lot of that.

Dale Boyd:

Yeah, and my only comment is that we're finding with the Ag Vic network that they're looking to get that connection to the mobile network every hour and then upload that data. If it gets a poor signal on that hour, the logger internally in that machine will still store that information and then attempt the next hour and then connect it up. If you've got pretty poor service, we've even found a miss for a day or two and even longer and, all of a sudden, when it does get that connection, the stored data hasn't been lost, it just hasn't been transmitted and then once you do get the solid connection, the transmission happens, you can get the display then.

Heather Field:

All right, thank you. We've got a couple of questions from Vicky in regards to how expensive are the probes? Can individuals set them up rather than just a land care group? And where do you buy the probes? And do you use consultants to set them up?

Rob Shea:

Well, I've got a price list in front of me, Heather, if you want me to tackle that one.

Heather Field:

Sure.

Rob Shea:

Yeah. We've just got a current quote for an 80 centimeter probe with the solar panel and data logger, exclusive of GST is $2080. $2080 plus GST. Now, there's also an annual charge of the sim card, the Telstra, connecting to Telstra for the host to get the data through so 12 months subscription to that is $197 plus GST. Now, the weather stations are where you can really start spending some money. The weather stations are $4460 in addition to the probe so $4460 plus GST and the Telstra charge for hosting that for 12 months is $307 plus GST.

Rob Shea:

There's various suppliers. We use one, I won't advertise that, but there's plenty of information around. I'd be happy to get an email or something. We've had a pretty good run with what we're using. One of the important things, that the people we use have got a service desk in Perth, especially when the probes were playing up and Ben in Perth and I become very good friends over the phone, we were talking a fair bit. But that's probably almost essential, especially if you're trying to fix it and making sure that it's going. The other question about setting them up, it's not rocket science, it's just a fair while and a hand auger but you do need a bit of technical knowledge to set them up but there are agents who do that.

Dale Boyd:

And my comment would be to set them up in a fashion that they're in position monitoring those soil conditions for as long as possible so the real critical thing is to have that probe undisturbed and that's what we're finding with the PPS network, five years plus of data that's coming up, some of those Ag Vic ones at 10 plus. You can just monitor year on year and get those comparisons which is so essential. And with that, you talked about an 80 centimeter probe, Rob, I reckon that's a pretty good length. They come in varying lengths so 40 centimeters, 1.2 meter, but I find for an 80 centimeter probe, you can put that down 10-20 centimeters. That way, you can avoid stock impacting it, air seeders and implementers going over the paddock and you're still capturing the majority of that prime root zone from 10-20 down to 50 centimeters but you're also getting that understanding of what's happening down deeper in the profile and that's something that can be drawn upon, both by crops and pasture in the later end of the season.

Rob Shea:

Just a comment, Dale, with pastures, we've just done some deep soil tests on five of the sites for another project but, especially as a group, getting some deep soil tests are very interesting measuring root depth and everything like that so that 80 centimeter level, we've got quite a few Phalaris pastures poking into that level and in our part of the world, there's not much lest after that except rock but that's interesting exercise for a group to do a few deep soil calls and get them analyzed by a soil scientist and a good way to learn about moisture holding capacity and everything like that.

Dale Boyd:

Yeah, for sure. And perennial growth of those pastures, the data's quite repeatable because the root zone's already established, it's activated, fills up, grows over winter and depletes those resources spring and into summer, depending on that spring finish whereas the annual crops is quite the dynamic, same in autumn, maybe early May, slow growth, low water use, and then starts to really get cranking in August and September and you hope you've got your moisture in the bank by then. If you don't, well then you can start to ... If you don't have it built, well that's where you start to make your adjustments and just in terms of those investments, inputs are continually going up. Nitrogen costs as they are, as an application per hectare. The expenditure on a moisture probe can certainly assist in whether you go for your first or even your second application of nitrogen so you can certainly pay for your equipment, the economics can stack up in particular years.

Heather Field:

Great. Thanks to the panel for that. Great responses there. We've got one final question from John, who's keen for some comments on the installation of the probes and the linkage of the sensing points on the probes to the soil. Do you want to start that one off, Dale?

Dale Boyd:

Yeah. I think there was also the question about who do we employ? Well, majority of the Ag Vic probes have been installed by a service technician that's obviously quite proficient in doing that. Essentially, they're doing a small pilot hole, it's only just a fraction bit bigger than the probe itself and then, within that hole, they're pouring in a slurry solution of sand, a fine sand, and some bentonite and a certain quantity of water so it becomes quite a soupy sort of mix and then that allows you to push the probe into that hole and the slurry sort of oozes up but it fills all the voids and that's what you're looking to do, fill the voids so there's no air pockets and so where the sensor is reading, it's measuring through a very fine part of the slurry solution but the majority of what it's monitoring is that soil medium, that particular soil medium that you'll find and it'll vary down through the horizon. Undisturbed, putting in that probe. Yeah, get the service technician to do it.

Heather Field:

Thanks, Dale. We've come to the end of questions so just any final comments from our three presenters, if you have any final comments.

Dale Boyd:

My only other comment was that on the dashboard, we're certainly collecting rainfall data, comparing that to long term comparisons on a monthly analysis and that soil temperature as well is being displayed and this year, there's been particular interest in inquiry into soil temperatures so it's been pleasing that we can then display that on the dashboard too and then just below, this is really what I'm looking to get to, the characteristics of the soil, what we're measuring, using the probe to determine upper and lower limits and then determining, by its soil type characteristic, what a holding capacity is and then we can put in millimeters within that graph system. I reckon that's a good way to finish.

Heather Field:

Thanks, Dale. We do have just another question that's just popped in from Shane about the cost of the actual moisture sensors?

Dale Boyd:

Yeah, in a way, the probe's the cheaper component of it. If you want a guide, it might be $1000 to $1200 so that's the probe, they're plug and play generally. They'll tap into any logger or telemetry device and we're continually seeing developments with those telemetry devices and data transmission. Yeah, if that's the cost, then the logger comes on top of that and Rob talked about the weather station. I'd just make the comment that a rain gauge is a simple and a pretty cheap add on. A simple tipping bucket, you're probably in the range of $300 for that so you can start to piece it all together and then if you're looking to go for the full weather station, you got to pay that extra cost and then I'd probably just make the comment you get what you pay for with those weather stations.

Dale Boyd:

Some of them are pretty cheap and they're built cheap but you'll put them on and probably expect to replace some of the components within three to four years. You spend a bit more or a lot more and you'll get longer lifespan out of them so you can weigh it up, which way you want to go with that.

Rob Shea:

Maybe a comment, Dale, on those, they also measure Delta-T so a lot of people are finding that the most useful part of the whole show, especially for immediate action.

Dale Boyd:

For sure, yep, yep. And hence why weather stations, moisture probes have become quite popular, that's why there is a particular building service industry for those, and finding that those records are so important and taking note of what they are at the time and then with the capacity to download that data for historical records and your record keeping.

Heather Field:

Fantastic. All right. Well, we have reached time so I will pull it up there and I just wanted to say a big thank you to Dale, Rob and Tony for giving us your time today and a great update on the dashboard and how the Perennial Pasture Systems group are using the information for their decision making. I'd also like to thank everyone for joining today. We had quite a lot of interest with about 100 people who registered for today's webinar and nearly half of those who tuned in live today. As I mentioned, the webinar has been recorded so you can catch up on it again if you want to look over anything and when you do exit out of today's webinar, there will be a short survey that pops up on your screen so we really do appreciate if you can spend a minute just to complete that.

Heather Field:

Everyone who has registered will receive the recording and details for future climate webinars so stay tuned for those and look out for that in your inbox. Thank you to our presenters and hope everyone has a good afternoon.

Rob Shea:

Great, thanks.

Dale Boyd:

Thank you.

Page last updated: 11 Nov 2022