Getting connected

19 November 2018

ON-FARM SNAPSHOT
Name/s Calum and Belinda Carruth
Location Murchison House Station, Kalbarri, WA
Area 141,600ha
Enterprise Rangeland goats, beef cattle and tourism
Livestock numbers 200 Shorthorn-cross cattle, 7000 rangeland goats
Pasture types Varied, native and introduced grasses, mulga and wattle scrub
Soil types Varied, red or black loam over limestone, sandy coastal heath
Rainfall (average annual) 300 mm

'Murchison House Station' has a rich history as one of the oldest pastoral stations in WA, but its owners have their sights set firmly on the future. 

Calum and Belinda Carruth run beef cattle and rangeland goats on Murchison House Station, located just 12km from the WA coastal resort town of Kalbarri, 650km north of Perth.

Since September last year, the couple has been working with AgTech provider Origo.farm to ensure their historic station can take part in agriculture’s digital future.

In March this year, the MLA Donor Company (MDC), in cooperation with Origo.farm, began supporting the project through matching Federal Government R&D funding. The goal is to develop a remote location, whole-of-farm connectivity solution that can be rolled out across other remote properties.

Challenging terrain

Murchison House Station covers 350,000 acres, including the ancient limestone Toolonga escarpment, a 150-million-year-old former coral reef that rises 180m above sea level and forms the ‘backbone’ of the station. There is also 60km of wild Indian Ocean shoreline, and more than 30km of Murchison River floodplains.

The terrain is rugged, spectacular and varied, and is a drawcard for tourists and palaeontologists alike, who are accommodated on the property between April and October each year. What it’s not, however, is ‘digital friendly’.

Getting connected

Calum contacted Annie Brox from Origo.farm , after reading an article about her company installing full broadband connectivity across a 6,500ha farm at Mingenew, 200km to the south.

“At the time we had no connectivity over most of the station,” Calum said.

“There were a couple of high spots where you could pick up a mobile phone signal, but not many.

“Our data was restricted to 50GB of peak time download a month – our son could use that up in one school holiday afternoon of gaming – we had frequent drop-outs and speed tests showed our download speeds were much slower than advertised.”

Origo.farm’s first task was to connect the homestead to fast NBN broadband. They did this by installing a secondary node at a friend’s house in Kalbarri 12km away, then transmitting the signal to a receiving tower on top of a hill at the station, down to towers at water tanks, and on to the homestead.

“The homestead is in a big hollow – only 8m above sea level – so we had to send the signal around the hills,” Calum said.

“We now have fast broadband to the homestead and connectivity around what we call the ‘home paddocks’, or ‘the farm’.

“This gives us unlimited data and the speeds are the same as people on NBN fixed line services in Kalbarri. The NBN isn’t great – my mate in Cambodia has five times our download speeds – but we can now run the station as if we are living in Kalbarri.

“The rest of the station is over the range, which is about 150m high, so we’ll have to get over that to send signal out the back.”

Stage one: remote water monitoring and management

As well as accessing fast broadband at the homestead, Calum and Belinda’s initial goal was to improve on-farm efficiency by allowing remote monitoring of the station’s water points.

“In summer we check our tanks and water points three times a week,” Calum said.

“That involves a 250km, five-hour, round trip each time, over punishing terrain, often in 45°+ heat.

“It’s punishing on your body and it’s punishing on the LandCruiser. Vehicle maintenance is a huge cost and, if nothing is actually wrong with the water, you’ve wasted five hours, so it’s quite inefficient.

“We’re now finishing stage one of the project, which is installing water level sensors and flow meters on four tanks in the home paddocks. We’ve also put in two remote weather monitoring stations: one in our main cropping paddock and one at the homestead.”

The next phases of the water monitoring project will require connectivity to the farthest water points, 52km to the east, along the Toolonga escarpment, and 56km north, along the coast.

“Once all the water points are connected we’ll only go out to check when something is wrong. The software will establish a baseline of what our cattle and goats usually drink, then it will recognise when something is out of kilter and send an alert to our phones.

“Not having to go out there three times a week in summer means I can target my crew to do a job, like fencing, that might make some money instead of just spending it.”

Stage two: remote livestock monitoring

Calum has identified mustering as another area where connectivity could improve efficiency, safety and cost-effectiveness.

“The next stage after water will be remote cameras and automatic gates for monitoring and managing livestock,” he said.

“Our furthest yards are 65km from the house. The plan is to use cameras to monitor the number of goats in an area, and then use the same signal to remotely open and shut gates, which would allow us to target our musters more efficiently.

“Mustering costs are quite dramatic, especially when you get together a light aircraft, a helicopter and half a dozen motorbikes, and you don’t catch anything. And every time you jump on a motorbike to chase goats you’re risking someone falling off.

“If you can look through a camera lens and say ‘there’s no goats there today, let’s not bother, we’ll carry on fencing instead’, that’s saving you exposure to risk and using staff time more cost-effectively.”

Fit-for-purpose

According to Origo.farm’s Annie Brox working closely with Calum and Belinda to understand their particular challenges, as well as the technology’s potential application to livestock management has been critical to the project's success so far.

“Up to this point we have been cooperating with mixed grains and livestock farms in WA,” Annie said.

“The cooperation with MLA means we can do R&D to ensure livestock producers can use tools that are common in other industries.

“For us it is about saving producers’ resources and time, and assist in creating sustainable red meat operations for the future.

“Having producers, like Calum and Belinda, to work with is crucial. We need reference farms and producers who are willing to be part of the R&D and share their experiences to enable both the livestock and agtech industries to learn and experience.”

Annie said solution providers need to “do the hard yards” and field test solutions on-farm.

“I have to emphasise that you really need to be there, testing and learning,” Annie said.

“Murchison House Station is challenging, and this is helping us to develop the ‘right stuff’: systems that are fit-for-purpose, rugged and priced in such a way that the livestock industry can take full advantage.

“MLA is helping create a working marketplace with a range of service providers. We are happy to contribute and share our experiences to create a working market with services and tools for our producers, so they can create safe, profitable and competitive farms for the future.”

Calum’s lessons learned so far

  • We have hard water. Scale build-up will affect flow meters, so we may need a filtration system.
  • We initially planned to use Wi-Fi transmitters but they weren’t up to it. We’re now using a 900MHz meshing radio system, which is much better at covering the broken limestone landscape.
  • Things we will need to watch: salt air affecting components; cattle rubbing on weather stations; galahs and parrots chewing cables; birds nesting in towers.
  • Apart from Origo.farm’s Intellectual Property (electronics and software system), everything is off-the-shelf and easily sourced from local hardware and irrigation stores.
  • Existing hardware can be re-used and recycled. I’m using old windmill towers and towers from an old shortwave radio system as my repeater towers.
  • With Origo.farm’s system, all data collected stays in a farm server and is the property of the farmer. Not all systems do that, so make sure you check.

Annie’s tips

  • Serviceability is crucial in harsh environments. All wires need to be inside pipes or conduits to be protected from vermin and birds, as well as sunlight. Even the best cables won’t stand up to galahs.
  • Hardware needs to be easy to replace. Make hardware components, such as enclosure stands, using standard bolts, pipes and brackets i.e. no machined parts.
  • Seek systems thatcome with a service plan. Producers can farm, and we monitor, maintain and keep systems up-to-date.
  • Systems must support operational efficiency i.e. create less work, not more.

Information: http://www.murchisonhousestation.com.au/

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