Precision agriculture has a revolution right under its nose – and it just might not fully realise it yet.
The man driving this change, not just across Australia but also across the vast grain regions of North America and now into South America, is Peter Burgess of Liquid Systems (SA).
This is remarkable success story for a man who spent two years washing cars while getting back on his feet after his career lay in ruins during the savage high-interest days of the 1980s.
It was a far cry from the heady days when he had big contracts with major international agricultural machinery makers, and spent time improving machinery in the California winegrape industry.
In his latest incarnation, Burgess and his Liquid Systems company turned over $2.4 million in sales last year, which included $1.5 million in export sales. He expects to double that in the next three years.
“I’m not an agronomist, soil scientist or a chemist – I am a design engineer,” Burgess says.
“An engineer who works closely with growers and scientists to design, develop and bring to reality systems and components to make their aspirations possible.”
For Burgess that story is now all about precise in-furrow liquid delivery and he has been working on this innovation for the past 14 years.
He says the beauty of liquid for agriculture is that it is a medium which can be totally controlled. With precision.
The biggest challenge for Burgess is to convince the agricultural industry that liquid delivery systems are not just about liquid fertiliser.
“Plenty of farmers still don’t know anything about liquid and too many associate this practice with liquid fertilisers,” he says.
Burgess says the reality is that liquid fertiliser plays only a minor role in what is now possible with advanced liquid application equipment. His equipment can deliver fungicide, micronutrients, inoculants, nematicide, insecticide, ameliorants – and water.
“We are way ahead of the US when it comes to application equipment – period,” Burgess says. “In fact we now supply a number of progressive and innovative dealers in the US and Canada.”
They have also started to spread into Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.
Injecting water in furrow is a new practice being trialed in Argentina. It’s getting plants established before big rains arrive. In 2013 plants there were five weeks ahead in growth.
“It’s all about the effective and efficient application of liquid (micronutrients, soil treatments and conditioners) which requires delivery that is accurate and even, row to row, second by second,” Burgess says.
His machinery gives consistent delivery for the entire length of every furrow. It’s also critical for the uniform treatment of seed and soil in the furrow.
“Precision liquid delivery in-furrow is far superior to solid granules when it comes to application rate control and has many operational advantages over seed coating processes used for inoculants, micronutrients and fungicides,” Burgess argues. “And that means more dollars staying where people want to keep them – in the bank.”
Precision liquid injection is also often complementary to dry granular fertiliser application. Many of Liquid Systems’ customers don’t use liquid fertiliser but they do use liquid delivery to support the granular compounds they apply, with water as the main carrier.
Burgess first started providing his prototype equipment to farmers on South Australia’s west coast, delivering phosphoric acid into the soil, then to West Australian farmers injecting UAN.
Burgess quickly discovered farmers he was working with were running other liquid products, such as trace elements and fungicides, through his fledgling delivery systems.
His innovation and market acceptance grew rapidly from there and when John Deere approached him about adapting his technology to its 1910 commodity cart, Burgess was back in business.
An allied supplier agreement was signed with John Deere in August 2010 and today it is still a business partner – a relationship that helped smooth the way for Burgess to get back into the North American market.
“I have kept developing, that never stops, and we have new products, improved technology, coming through all the time,” he says. “Now we are hooked up to GPS mapping and variable rate injection so we can deliver exactly the right amount for different soil types and conditions across a single paddock, let alone a whole property.”
He is always looking for something else to do, such as soil mapping integrated with decision tools, saying that because liquid delivery is a medium that can really be controlled it ensures better outcomes.
“Our retro fit systems have the capability to individually address and manage the soil condition of different soil horizons during a planting operation,” he says. “Nitrogen and soil conditioning agents can be deep banded and starter fertiliser can be added precisely with the seed higher up in the profile.”
Deep banding, side banding, banding with seed, surface banding – Burgess says it can all be done now using Liquid Systems (SA) technology.
“Direct injection via our SPIKER means we can inject a chemical or micronutrient or a specific tank agitated blend into the main stream on the go. This allows independent rate control of the injected chemical and avoids some of the pitfalls of all in one tank mixing and mechanical (locked rate) direct injection devices,” he says.
Precision agriculture has only just begun.