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Mini-review

Received: 16 October 2013

Revised: 1 April 2014

Accepted article published: 9 May 2014

Published online in Wiley Online Library: 2 June 2014

(wileyonlinelibrary.com) DOI 10.1002/jsfa.6734

The role of precision agriculture for improved
nutrient management on farms
Carolyn Hedley*
Abstract
Precision agriculture uses proximal and remote sensor surveys to delineate and monitor within-field variations in soil and crop
attributes, guiding variable rate control of inputs, so that in-season management can be responsive, e.g. matching strategic
nitrogen fertiliser application to site-specific field conditions. It has the potential to improve production and nutrient use
efficiency, ensuring that nutrients do not leach from or accumulate in excessive concentrations in parts of the field, which
creates environmental problems. The discipline emerged in the 1980s with the advent of affordable geographic positioning
systems (GPS), and has further developed with access to an array of affordable soil and crop sensors, improved computer power
and software, and equipment with precision application control, e.g. variable rate fertiliser and irrigation systems. Precision
agriculture focusses on improving nutrient use efficiency at the appropriate scale requiring (1) appropriate decision support
systems (e.g. digital prescription maps), and (2) equipment capable of varying application at these different scales, e.g. the
footprint of a one-irrigation sprinkler or a fertiliser top-dressing aircraft. This article reviews the rapid development of this
discipline, and uses New Zealand as a case study example, as it is a country where agriculture drives economic growth. Here,
the high yield potentials on often young, variable soils provide opportunities for effective financial return from investment in
these new technologies.
© 2014 Society of Chemical Industry
Keywords: precision agriculture; variable rate technology; nutrient management; sensors; GPS

INTRODUCTION

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Precision agriculture is made possible by new technologies [geographic positioning systems (GPS), sensors, geographic information systems (GIS), and advanced software and precision application equipment]. It aims to modify inputs (e.g. fertiliser, irrigation, dairy effluent, seed rate) spatially and temporally at the
sub-paddock scale for cost efficiencies and productivity and environmental gains. Globally, the affordability and accessibility of
these technologies helped precision agriculture emerge as a
research discipline in the 1980 s1 and a strong focus has always
been to improve nutrient use efficiency by matching inputs to
site-specific field conditions.2,3
Matching fertiliser inputs to site-specific field conditions requires
measurement and understanding of soil spatial variability and
crop nutrient status, and its relation to crop response. Precision
agriculture uses high resolution (<10 m) geo-referenced remote
and proximally sensed data to quantify and delineate variability
between ‘management zones’.4 The sensors generate large volumes of data, and the simultaneous advent of high-performing
computers and the internet has made it possible to process large
survey datasets and data streams in near real-time to inform
precision management decisions. Field studies have shown that
site-specific in-season adjustments of fertiliser inputs to account
for climatic conditions and varying yield potential differences
increase fertiliser nitrogen (N) use efficiency up to 368% compared
with common farmer practices.5,6
Before the introduction of precision agriculture methods,
researchers had noted soil variability7,8 and discussed the
need for differential inputs, e.g. fertiliser application to hill
country.9,10 However, it was the affordability of the GPS and sensor
J Sci Food Agric 2015; 95: 12–19

technologies that advanced our ability to measure and monitor
soil and plant variability to tailor inputs to site-specific conditions
in the landscape. Research has shown that the introduction of
GPS alone (‘autosteer’) onto farm machinery can increase efficiencies by 5–10% (e.g. reduce overlaps and gaps, when spreading
fertiliser).11 A GPS system, the Inertial Navigation System Technology, has recently been introduced for the automated guidance
of agricultural vehicles, making possible the accuracy, reliability,
and ability to display, combine, and manipulate spatial maps
of field characteristics instantly to the vehicle operator.5 When
sensors are used with GPS, and GIS is used to produce prescription
maps (e.g. for guiding variable fertiliser or irrigation applications),
savings can easily be another 10–20%, depending on the inherent
variability and need for variable inputs existing in that paddock.
This article reviews the introduction of precision agriculture to
New Zealand. New Zealand provides a useful case study being a
small country where agriculture drives economic growth, a farming community exists that is capable and well placed to respond
to changing market forces, and pasture and crop yield potentials
are comparatively high on a global scale due to favourable soil and
climatic conditions. This provides the opportunity to convert capital expenditure in new technologies and management methods
to productivity gains and financial return.

Correspondence to: Carolyn Hedley, Landcare Research, Riddet Road, Massey
University Campus, Palmerston North 4442, New Zealand, E-mail: HedleyC@LandcareResearch.co.nz
Landcare Research, Riddet Road, Massey University Campus, Palmerston North,
4442, New Zealand

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Precision agriculture managing farm nutrients

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EARLY STUDIES SCOPING THE POTENTIAL
APPLICATION OF PRECISION FARMING IN NEW
ZEALAND

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PRECISION AGRICULTURE AT THE LANDSCAPE
SCALE: ASSESSING VRAT FOR AERIAL
FERTILISER APPLICATION TO HILL COUNTRY
FARMS
A study was conducted to investigate the potential use of precision
technologies by hill country farming communities.12 – 14 It assessed
the potential benefits from automating fertiliser flow control from
top-dressing planes to vary application rates based on the potential outputs of the farmland. To predict the distribution profile of
any particle-size distribution from spreader ducts, and the deposition footprint, a transverse distribution model was developed that
modelled the ballistics of superphosphate granules from aircraft.
Good agreements were found between the model predictions and
field trials.
A subsequent comparison of the economic benefits of a single
automated application of superphosphate, where automation
reduced application outside of the zone, was compared with
a manually operated system.17 The automation provided a net
benefit of NZD $2800 for a 1500 ha hill country farming system.
The value of improving the performance of a top-dressing aircraft, on an industry level, was also examined. The cost benefit
analysis between a manual and automated system revealed
a benefit of NZD $111 th;700 year−1 for a single top-dressing
aircraft using the automated system. This amount equates
to 10–25% of typical annual costs of spreading superphosphate, based on 600 h flying time per year, spreading 12 T h−1
at NZD $60 T−1 .
A spatially explicit decision tree modelling technique was
developed18 to predict the variations of annual pasture production with topography over the study area, and an example of
the output of this model is shown in Fig. 2. The model tended
to follow the farm’s digital elevation model, and showed that
variable-rate application technology (VRAT) was the most efficient
and highest returning application method per hectare, when
compared with conventional aerial application techniques. Additional contractor costs and the resultant increased charge-out
rates were likely to occur under VRAT; nevertheless, the analysis indicated that significant financial incentives were available
to the farmer. A sensitivity analysis revealed that even with a
20% increase in charge-out rate associated with VRAT, the farm’s
annual cash position varied by only NZD $4500 (0.4%), suggesting the cost of implementing such a system is not prohibitive
and would allow aircraft operators to add value to their services. There has been little uptake of this technology to date,
with the financial viability of the top-dressing industry as a
whole being tested by rising fertiliser prices, and falling end user
demand resulting in lower returns to the industry per tonne
applied.17

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An initial New Zealand study to investigate the potential benefits of precision agriculture to arable farmers was initiated in
1998 (Fig. 1).11 The project was designed to demonstrate the
economic benefits of identifying different growth zones (termed
‘management zones’) within a paddock and altering management of each zone to maximise its potential. The main underlying variables found at the sites were soil depth, moisture retention, and drainage, which played significant controlling roles on
yield and grower returns. A conclusion of the study was that
inputs such as N fertiliser should be altered to best suit the land
and soil conditions, as well as agronomic requirements of the
particular crop. Variable rate N fertiliser trials indicated that the
above-average yielding parts of paddocks had scope to respond to
additional N.
The study also examined how to use crop yield data for precision
management, and found that yield potential varies for different
crops in different management zones, as well as with seasonal
conditions and the level of applied crop management.
This initial work indicated that a significant knowledge base is
required, e.g. yield maps, soil and climatic information, crop agronomy, and equipment type to assess needs and ability for precision
management. This is an underlying principle of precision agriculture, i.e. ‘measure, monitor and then manage’. At this time, some
modern spray equipment was capable of differentially spraying
different zones with different rates of N although the benefits had
yet to be economically proven.
A comprehensive study11 was subsequently conducted to assess
the potential impacts of precision agriculture on New Zealand’s
agricultural and horticultural industries. The study reviewed the
current use of precision agriculture (PA) technologies in New
Zealand, and examined the environmental and economic benefits, identifying difficulties in implementation and future potential,
and areas where future R&D should be focussed. The benefit to
New Zealand from the application of PA was estimated as NZD
$1.27 billion, for the four main sectors: (1) viticulture, (2) sheep
and beef, (3) grain and (4) dairying. The analysis indicated that
the greatest benefit of PA would be to sheep and beef farming
on rolling and hilly land, because the level of variability in yield
potential is typically far higher in this type of topography than flat
land; perhaps five-fold higher than that expected on cropping or
dairy farms. Second, the costs of implementing precision agriculture to this sector was expected to be lower than in other sectors,
with most benefit derived from precise placement of fertiliser, such
as dressings of superphosphate, thus reducing application rate on
less productive areas and boosting it on the more productive land.
As practically all the fertiliser is applied by aircraft in these landscapes, most of the cost would be borne by the aerial contractors.
For this exercise it was assumed an extra charge of 5% would cover
the cost of using this technology. At that time, the beef and sheep
sector used 49% of the total fertiliser used per annum in New
Zealand, with fertiliser costs making up 22% of annual cash expenditure on sheep and beef farms. A modelling exercise showed
a potential 27% yield increase by varying fertiliser applications,
with different rates being applied on different slope and aspect
categories.
Murray et al. concluded that for producers to improve production efficiency they must first be able to measure it, for which precision agriculture provides a number of enabling technologies (e.g.

GPS mapping and guidance ‘Autosteer’, yield mapping, robotic
milking, RFID tagging, electromagnetic sensor mapping). The
findings of this review led to further PA research in variable rate
fertiliser application to hill country by top-dressing12 – 14 and to flat
land by ground spreading.15
Other work at this time16 reviewed the potential use of site
specific data techniques and information management systems in
horticultural enterprises and stated that there were opportunities
to use this method to optimise physical and financial aspects of
horticultural production systems, along with provision of reliable
audit for product security.

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C Hedley

Figure 1. A timeline of precision agriculture research and uptake in New Zealand.

Figure 2. An example of the decision support tree output predicting
annual pasture production at Limestone Downs pastoral hill country farm,
North Island, New Zealand.12 – 14,17

PRECISION AGRICULTURE AT THE PADDOCK
SCALE: VRAT FOR GROUND-SPREADING
FERTILISER VEHICLES

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Inaccurate application of nutrients from ground-based fertiliser
spreading vehicles can lead to major agronomic and economic
losses.15 A study was conducted to develop methods to test
ground spreader application performance, and then evaluated the
economic benefit of using precision agriculture technologies in
New Zealand dairy farming systems.15
A transverse spreader test gave a good indication of machine
performance in controlled conditions. This test measures the distribution pattern of applied fertiliser in a series of trays laid out in
the field to collect the fertiliser during one pass of the spreader.
A field method was then developed to account for the interaction

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of the spreader in its operational environment. This field method
logged and used vehicle location with the transverse spread pattern of superphosphate or urea to create field application maps.
A study on four dairy farms, over 102 paddocks, showed an average spreading variation was 37.9%, and it was suggested that the
accuracy of this field fertiliser delivery needed to be improved. A
method was suggested using GPS autosteer guidance on the fertiliser spreader.
The ability to execute a nutrient plan using both actual and
optimised spreading data collected during field application was
assessed. A loss of NZD $66 ha−1 was calculated when comparing the efficiency of using current spreading methods with those
assumed in nutrient budgeting practice, i.e. accurate application rates. When GPS guidance and control systems were used
to improve field application the loss was shown to reduce to
NZD $46 ha−1 .
This highlighted the difficulties in achieving accurate field nutrient application with existing fertiliser spreading equipment; however, by developing the ability to quantify field performance, economic opportunities could be evaluated. Overall, this work found
that there was a strong agronomic and economic case for the
implementation of precision agricultural technologies in the New
Zealand fertiliser industry.
These initial studies, completed in 2007, provided some benchmark methods for assessing the spatial variability of fertiliser
spreading both in hill country and flat land. They also discussed
ways in which fertiliser application rates could be more accurately
delivered to the land, and varied according to the yield potential
at any specific position. The economic analyses showed that for
uptake by the NZ fertiliser industry and the farming community,
precision-farming methods deserved further study and development. The work noted at that time, that the range of equipment
used by the spreading industry was inadequate for variable rate
application, so that these estimated benefits could not be operationally realised.

© 2014 Society of Chemical Industry

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Precision agriculture managing farm nutrients

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A range of variable rate fertiliser applicators are now available
in New Zealand. The latest technology for precision spreaders
uses variable application placement control, which incorporates
a variable spreading disc speed and electrical adjustment of the
delivery system so that for the first time the spread width of
the right and left sides can be individually controlled. To prevent
over- and under-fertilisation, the applicator also has a ‘headland
control’ to avoid overlaps in headlands and when driving around
curves.19

VARIABLE RATE IRRIGATION MINIMISING
NUTRIENT LEACHING LOSSES
The relevance of applying variable rate technology to irrigation
systems has been researched and found useful to reduce drainage
and accompanying nutrient leaching losses where variable soils
exist under an irrigation system.20,21 A variable rate modification
for sprinkler systems was developed22 within 3 years of the development of the irrigation prescription map method. The variable
rate modification provides individual sprinkler control, and is programmed to vary irrigation to different soil management zones
under one irrigation system.23 The mapping method uses electromagnetic soil mapping to quantify soil variability on a basis
of soil texture and moisture.24 These maps are then converted to
irrigation prescription maps, by characterising soil water holding
properties within each management zone defined on the electromagnetic map, and monitoring daily soil moisture in each management zone. New smart technologies exist to monitor soil moisture in real-time, continuously with web access, e.g. wireless soil
moisture sensor networks.25,26 Irrigation is varied to each management zone because different textural soil classes will dry out
at different rates, each reaching the critical soil moisture deficit
at which irrigation is required on different days. The calculated
water savings of this variable rate irrigation system, was modelled
for five case study sites, and shown to be 9–26% with equivalent energy savings and improved efficiency in use of irrigation
water. Modelled drainage and run-off were reduced by 0–55% during the period of irrigation, with an accompanying reduced risk of
N leaching.
International use of this technology has been reviewed27 and
found to be under-utilised despite its potential to impact positively on crop water productivity, water and energy conservation,
and the environment. The technological modification of irrigation systems is now commercially available, but further research is
required to develop a user-friendly decision-support system capable of defining management zones, sensing within-field variability
in real-time, and adaptively controlling site-specific variable-rate
water applications.27 – 30

PRECISION FERTIGATION OF NUTRIENTS

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Precision fertigation systems need to be guided by prescription
maps of (1) crop water and (2) nutrient status, which are likely to be
different, e.g. soil dryness indicates the need for irrigation, but does
not necessarily indicate a fertiliser requirement; the latter being
controlled by past fertiliser and land use history, as well as soil
conditions. Considerable research is required to develop effective
decision support tools for precision fertigation systems.
Drip irrigation is the most efficient method to deliver water and
nutrients to a plant, but is not always practicable (e.g. in cultivated
soils), is expensive to install, and requires regular maintenance,
e.g. acid washing to keep drip lines clean. A number of earlier
New Zealand studies examined fertigation of crops using drip
irrigation systems, and found that fertigation was of no benefit
for kiwifruit on deep free-draining soils.32,33 Other research found
mixed benefits to fertigating onions and squash in a fertile sandy
loam soil.34
Sub-surface drip irrigation of pastures has been trialled in Australia, during a severe shortage of fresh water.35 It appears likely
that this highly efficient method of introducing nitrogen fertiliser
to the root zone will militate against nitrate leaching losses and
nitrous oxide emissions in a well-managed system, but issues of
acidification will need to be further investigated; and appropriate
decision support systems need to be developed.

DAIRY FARM EFFLUENT IRRIGATION
In 2003 the New Zealand dairy industry increased the national
dairy cow herd by 44% from 2.6 million in 1993 to 3.74 million. In 2011 it had increased further to 6.2 million cows.36,37
These increases in cow numbers have generated very large volumes of dairy-farm effluent (DFE), requiring appropriate management. The introduction of the Resource Management Act
in 1991 opposed the traditional procedure of the discharge of
two-pond-system-treated effluent to waterways, making it a regulated activity, i.e. restrictions were imposed on timing and amount
of discharge to waterways. The preferred option became land
application of DFE taken from the two-pond system or directly
from a sump holding the dairy wash-down. Research was necessary to find the most appropriate method for land application of DFE. Deferred irrigation was trialled as a method for land
treatment, which is a form of precision management (temporal)
because it delays irrigating very wet soils until a specified soil moisture deficit is reached.38 Much greater spatial optimisation of nutrient management is possible, using targeted application to ensure
DFE is placed according to plant needs and nutrient inputs, and
to avoid critical source areas of nutrient loss.38 Good progress has
now been made with the automation of DFE scheduling and application, using real-time daily weather records, modelling, and sensors to track storage pond volumes and soil moisture deficits and
identify opportunities for irrigation.39 GPS on the irrigator identifies its position in the landscape and customises applications
to reflect soil moisture deficit. A product was developed in 2010
which sends a text message to the farmer every morning, to inform
on soil moisture deficit, and there has been some initial uptake

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Fertigation, the application of nutrients in irrigation water to
plants, has evolved with irrigation technology, and is more time
and cost efficient than two separate operations applying water
and nutrients. There are a handful of early adopters of centre
pivot fertigation31 in New Zealand, and the technology is showing
a steady rate of uptake in other parts of the world. When solid
urea is dissolved, the endothermic reaction can be problematic
in farm fertigation systems, and so the use of urea as a solution
is advisable.31 The potential benefits of using centre pivots for
fertigation therefore include:27

• Potential for highly efficient controlled uniform or variable
application to meet the site-specific needs of the crop, over a
large area (50 ha or larger)
• A high degree of automation requiring less labour than most
other irrigation systems
• Ability to apply water and water soluble nutrients economically
over a wide range of soil, crop, and topographical conditions

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by end users of this product.40 The automation of DFE management systems offers advantages in terms of reduced farm labour
requirements and fewer opportunities for operator error. While
there is some slow uptake of these commercial systems, they could
become a regulatory requirement in the future, because they assist
precise recycling of nutrients to pastures, with less risk of run-off to
waterways.38

ASSESSING VARIABLE CROP RESPONSE USING
OPTICAL SENSORS FOR IMPROVED
STRATEGIC INPUT MANAGEMENT

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Currently, most growers calculate their N fertiliser requirements
with a nutrient budget based on soil mineral N test results and
potential yield of the site. The practice of a single rate of N fertiliser applied across a whole crop may result in insufficient or
excessive N fertiliser rates in certain positions because of the spatial variability of soil mineral N and potential yield within any one
paddock. A more accurate estimate of plant N requirements is
therefore required for economic and environmental sustainability. Measurement of canopy reflectance with crop sensors could
potentially use the plant as an indicator of N requirements. In
wheat crops N is typically applied in two or three applications.
It is envisaged that the normalised difference vegetation index
may better assess N requirements at the second and third applications to determine which zones will or will not respond to further applications of N. Crop sensors, measuring the reflectance
from the cereal crop canopy, may offer a better opportunity
for matching crop needs to N input, when combined with GPS
technology.41,42
A number of optical sensors are now available to farmers to
actively monitor the development of growing crops such as cereals, brassica, maize and ryegrass. These vehicle-mounted sensors
are linked to GPS so that the position of the readings is recorded
and can be accurately mapped to inform variable rate fertiliser
or growth regulator application. Estimates of crop biomass are
made at discrete wavelengths in the visible and near infrared
region of the electromagnetic spectrum. A 3-year project compared the data from three crop sensors, as well as their usefulness as real-time decision support tools for strategic N fertiliser
applications.41 The most commonly used crop sensor index is
the normalised difference vegetation index, which can be related
to biomass.
The sensors were Greenseeker®, from Trimble (Sunnyvale,
California, USA), Crop Circle® from Holland Scientific (Lincoln,
Nebraska, USA), and CropSpec® from Topcon (Livermore, California, USA). Each sensor uses at least two wavebands, one in the
visible range, the other in near infrared. The systems were tested
in a range of crops, over a range of crop growth stages, on farms
in both North Island and South Island. The sensors, operating at
slightly different wavebands, have slightly different sampling footprints. The collected data were mapped in a GIS package and the
geo-referenced data were analysed to determine the relationships
between sensors in the different crops during tracking.
Key points from the study were that sensor responses would vary
with season and site and between sensor types. The sensor data
also need to be field validated, for example, additional biomass
may be weeds rather than crop. However, the sensors can detect
biomass differences and maps can be produced to help strategic
nutrient management of crops.41 The research is ongoing and has
applications for precision N fertiliser requirements.

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C Hedley

PASTURE YIELD MAPPING AND PASTURE
QUALITY ASSESSMENT
Pasture quantity
Where pastoral agriculture dominates over arable agriculture, as
in New Zealand (only 3% of agricultural land is cropped and more
than 50% is grazed), the ability to yield-map pastures is relevant
and provides a decision support tool for improved pasture management. An on-the-go pasture meter was therefore developed in
New Zealand to address this need.43 The equipment uses optical
sensors to determine pasture height, and needs to be calibrated
for pasture density. It can be used as a stand-alone pasture meter
or with GPS for pasture-yield mapping to provide information for
(1) feed budgeting and (2) strategic variable N input decisions.
An economic analysis was conducted, using a pasture yield map
to indicate potential benefits from applying variable rates of N
fertiliser to pasture. Uniform applications of 150 kg ha−1 y−1 urea-N
applied to a field where pasture production is variable shows that
production return varies in different parts of the field, per kg N
added to the pasture. A study of a dairy pasture showed that the
high producing area produces 15 kg DM kg−1 N compared with
7 kg DM kg−1 N for a low producing area. Assuming pasture value
is 20c NZD $0.20 kg DM, the extra production value in the low
producing area is worth NZD $225 and in the high producing
area is worth NZD $455. The net benefit of fertiliser application
can be compared by subtracting the fixed cost of application
($10 ha kg−1 compared with NZD $239 ha kg−1 ). This provides a
case for varying fertiliser inputs to meet the yield potential of
different management zones, e.g where the yield differences are
due to soil differences.44
Further research will need to consider the effect of urine patches
on fertiliser application rates. The variable deposition of urine
patches across a paddock, due to preferential movement and
camping of grazing stock will partially explain the variable yield
map and therefore needs to be considered when designing a
variable N fertilisation strategy.

Pasture quality
A hyperspectral sensor was tested in the field, providing an
improved method for assessing pasture quality parameters
as a decision tool for (1) feed budgeting and (2) strategic N
application.45 – 47 The instrument measures reflectance every
nanometre between 350 nm and 2500 nm, and the significantly
larger amount of information provides more robust datasets to
develop prediction models. These models relate the spectral
data to a number of pasture quality parameters: including crude
protein, acid detergent fibre, lignin, lipid, metabolisable energy
and organic matter digestibility. When such sensors are mounted
on agricultural machinery to collect data during routine farming
operations (e.g. pasture yield mapping, crop spraying) this can
be used as a real-time decision-support tool to overcome issues
of spatial and temporal variability in pasture quality. The pasture
quality indicators provide valuable information for feed budgeting, facilitating the correct energy and protein balance in feed,
which is critical to maintain a high-performing dairy herd, for
example.
Further research is necessary to fully understand the relation
between pasture quality and fertiliser requirements. These technologies are in their infancy, and further research needs to be
undertaken before they can be effectively implemented on-farm.
They have potential to be used as a real-time management tool

© 2014 Society of Chemical Industry

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Precision agriculture managing farm nutrients

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for improved pasture management, guiding feed budgeting and
variable fertiliser inputs.

ANIMAL TRACKING FOR IMPROVED NUTRIENT
MANAGEMENT
Research has been conducted to understand the spatial and temporal variability of nutrient deposition onto pastures using an animal tracking methodology.48 The information, when used with
pasture quantity and quality monitoring, helps to explain the relative effects of urine deposition and soil differences on variable
pasture yields. Most nutrient cycling models assume a random distribution of excreta across the paddock. However, non-uniform distribution resulting from stock grazing and camping behaviour is
well known and can be caused by contour, water sources, shade,
shelter, and, particularly on dairy farms, around gateways.49 It
is also probable that paddock areas with greater pasture cover
and/or higher pasture quality may encourage livestock to spend
more time in these areas than elsewhere, with the likelihood that
nutrient distribution may be similarly biased. This research aimed
to quantify this heterogeneity of excretal deposition from grazing ruminant livestock to inform improved pasture management,
by monitoring the behaviour of dairy cows managed on pasture
under commercial conditions using tracking and sensor technologies. Dairy cows managed under commercial conditions on relatively flat land in early autumn were found to deposit the majority of their urine on pasture, with a non-random distribution. The
cows were observed to have preferred resting areas, while grazing followed a more uniform pattern. Although the frequencies
of urination and grazing behaviour followed similar temporal patterns, the spatial density patterns of grazing and urine patches
indicate some possible association between urination and standing and lying behaviours. The research showed that although urination frequencies were low during times spent lying, any urination during times of rest may lead to an exponential increase in
N losses and emissions compared with urination during grazing,
due to the greater probability of patch overlap within the smaller
resting areas. This would apply especially to steeper contoured
land where the proportion of flat land preferred for resting areas
is small.
Radio-frequency identification transponders are another
example of animal tracking devices, and since 2011 all cattle
in New Zealand have been tagged, as part of the National Animal
Identification and Tracing Project (NAIT).50 The project uses an
online database to store up-to-date electronic maps of farms,
contact information and stock details. It aims to meet consumer
demands for traceability, and be available to track stock in the
event of disease outbreak. Future developments of such systems
could include weight and milk production of individual cows.
When this database information is linked to other precision tools
it could enable improved feed budgeting and analysis of nutrient
demands.

UNMANNED AERIAL SYSTEMS ASSESSING
PASTURE QUALITY TO ASSIST NUTRIENT
MANAGEMENT

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CONCLUSIONS
Precision farming research advances in New Zealand over the last
16 years have identified a number of methods and applications
that can provide significant benefit to on-farm nutrient management. Advances have been discussed that relate to arable and
grazed pasture systems, at sub-paddock to whole farm scales.
Initial studies investigated the potential productivity gains with
the application of variable rate technologies to nutrient management. They also identified that although the benefits were there
to be taken, the industry lacked adequate variable control application equipment. However, major advances have been made
over this time to address this issue. New tractors now have accurate GPS installed, and variable rate fertiliser applicators are available. Dairy-farm effluent is managed using daily text messaging
of soil moisture deficits to the farmer. A variable rate modification has been developed for sprinkler irrigation systems to provide precision placement of irrigation water with individual sprinkler control. Web-enabled wireless soil moisture sensor networks
are being used for continuous monitoring of soil moisture status
in management zones for precision irrigation systems. Commercial precision agriculture companies are emerging that provide
commercial crop scanning, electromagnetic mapping, GPS farm
boundary mapping, and precision irrigation systems. Precision
agriculture research and end user uptake has therefore made significant advances over this time, and this is addressing the need for
improved on-farm productivity gains with reduced environmental
impacts.

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L, et al., Adoption of variable rate fertiliser application in the Australian grains industry: Status, issues and prospects. Precision Agric
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If precision farming methods are to be widely adopted they will
require accurate, reliable, and near-real time data.51 High resolution satellite imagery is becoming increasingly accessible,52
although often at prohibitive cost, and images taken by

low-altitude remote-sensing platforms, or small, unmanned aerial
systems have potential for affordable environmental monitoring
at high spatial and temporal resolution, with a high flexibility in
image acquisition programming.53
Airborne sensors mounted on unmanned aerial systems offer a
number of advantages over other remote sensing methods, which
are limited by temporal and spatial resolution, and proximal sensing methods, which can be laborious when surveying a whole
farm. Initial trials have been conducted with two multispectral sensors on board a remotely controlled MikroKopter to assess pasture quality parameters, such as crude protein and biomass.51 The
research is in its infancy but shows promise as a means of acquiring high-quality multispectral image data to assess the spatial and
temporal variability of pasture quality and biomass. More research
into unmanned aerial systems is required to advance platform
design, production, standardisation of image geo-referencing and
mosaicing, and information extraction workflow.53,54

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