There's nothing new about farmers using spatial mapping to manage a farm. They have done it for centuries.

Now farmers use digital technologies to make their maps.

Eagle Technology GIS product owner Lauren McArtney says it means they can do more with them.

"Farming is inherently spatial. You need to know where your assets are, what condition they are in and what you need to do in the future," says McArtney. "The benefit of a geographic information system is that it is a way of managing where things are.

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"It allows you find assets, track their current state and make plans. It won't be your only digital system. There might be others that track what those assets are doing or deal with sensors."

There are huge differences when maps move from paper to a digital form. McArtney says typical pre-digital farm maps might only show the geography and layout. Farmers would update these maps every six months or less often.

In contrast, the digital maps created by geographical information systems (GIS) are living documents. Farmers can update the maps weekly, daily or hourly. They can even use them in real time.

A geographical information system might tell you where to find a tractor or a water pump that needs fixing. It can also show where the stock is at any moment or whether a paddock is in suitable condition for the stock to move to.

It is all because GIS maps can exist on many layers. One layer might show geography, another might show buildings, a third could be soil types and so on.

GIS has many agribusiness applications. McArtney says one of the most important is making farms safer: "Every farm and every organisation has to adhere to health and safety regulations.

"Yet making a farm safe is more about understanding hazards, visualising them and sharing the information. That way, when people come on to a property they can know in advance where the hazards are. Farmers can know what they need to do to minimise the risks."

She says GIS gives farmers a visual way of providing staff members and visitors with up-to-date risk warnings. "It's not just a list."

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A drone over farmland
A drone over farmland

They can use GIS to record new safety incidents as they happen. Farmers can add a dashboard capability to show how many hazards there are. This can list what needs fixing and which areas of the farm need special care.

"Because it is about more than filling in a health and safety form, GIS gives farmers the data they need to make informed decisions.

"GIS health and safety information can integrate with other systems. Say someone from outside plans to visit a farm area where there is a fresh hazard. A system can generate and send an email warning of the danger before they arrive. It can tell them what precautions or protective gear they may need."

Health and safety doesn't exist in a vacuum. McArtney says farm GIS is not a specific health and safety system, it's also used for asset management and other applications.

This means dealing with the issues becomes part of business as usual.

"Integrating this into existing workflows is vital because you want the technology to be approachable.

"You don't want to make recording hazards onerous. You want everyone to feel comfortable using it."

GIS also has a role to play with managing Covid-19 risks. McArtney says GIS can track when people come on to a farm, where they go and who or what they interact with.

Organisers can use the technology to manage Covid-19 risks at, say, an agricultural event.

One specific health and safety application is organising how people move farms on Gypsy Day.

This is when sharemilkers move from one farm to another. It is a large-scale exercise; this year saw 5000 families move at the start of June.

McArtney says it was successful. Behind-the-scenes organisers used GIS tools to make that happen safely.

"Many of the challenges were spatial," she explains.

"It was all about using the power of a map. Everything that needed to be organised could be brought together in a single place. Then the information could be shared with decision makers. They were dealing with facts and information where in the past they may have been dealing with hearsay."

Drones play a big part

Drones and sensors are starting to play an important role alongside the use of farm geographical information systems.

Eagle Technology's Scott Campbell explains the the concept of GIS is all about layers of information. "Traditionally, government departments or individuals would maintain those layers," says Campbell who is Eagle Technology's head of GIS technology. "They included information about boundaries or water sources, but they were static. Over time we've moved to more dynamic sources to update layers of information.

"This is where drones and sensors have a role to play."

Scott Campbell
Scott Campbell

Campbell says a farm can install a finite number of IoT sensors.

The sensors might measure environmental values such as water quality, soil moisture or weather conditions.

"A farmer can collect the data along with the location information. Then, using some smarts on the computer and GIS, calculate the values in between each sensor to get a continuous picture of temperature, water quality or whatever and turn this into a GIS layer.

"They can connect this with data on other layers and use computer power to understand how they interact. This way the farmer can understand, say, how moisture relates to animal productivity or crop yield."

Campbell says farmers have used drones for some time now. A drone can capture video footage.

"If you take the frames from the drone video footage, you can create a two or three dimensional image-based map of an area.

"There is a hierarchy of photographic information. Satellites pick out the low resolution images. Fixed wing planes get closer and drones get closer again.

"Drones are a lot cheaper to deploy. Drone images can be built into a mosaic.

"Increasingly farmers are making maps using information from beyond the visible spectrum, going into infrared and ultraviolet. This allows you to pick up information about things such as vegetation health."

Campbell says this gives farmers better information to help decision-making. It makes for greater productivity, less waste and more sustainability.

He says this is especially important when it comes to applying fertiliser, which is often one of the largest costs and a source of run-off into rivers and water systems.