Young ag innovators win grants

By: Cat Fitzpatrick

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Projects to understand ewe behaviour after multiple births and detect crop diseases from the air are among 14 to win funding

Young ag innovators win grants
Sensors will be used to better understand ewe movements after multiple births under Travis Allington's project. Image courtesy Getty Images.


Innovative ideas to develop airborne disease detection and mapping for grain farmers, a smarter way to fence using your phone and purifying abattoir water for reuse are among 14 projects to receive funding in the Government’s Science and Innovation Awards.

Each of the project proponents will receive grants of up to $22,000 to further develop their ideas, for a combined $330,000 in grant funding, Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud says.

"These are innovative and practical ideas that will make farm businesses more efficient and provide greater protection against biosecurity threats," he says.

"All projects have big potential and we want to see them reach their goals. One project will also win the Minister’s Award with another $22,000 to help deliver the project."

Check out the other recipients of government funding in our report on the Federal Budget of 2018-19 here

The Meat & Livestock Australia Award went to Travis Allington for his project ‘Application of sensor technologies to understand the effects of ewe behaviour on survival of multiple born lambs’.

Allington’s project aims to increase the survival of ewes and their twin or triplet lambs, by understanding ewe and lamb behaviours around the time of birth.

"Improving lamb survival is a significant issue facing sheep farmers and the meat industry at the moment" he says.

"My project will specifically look at the multiple-born portion of the sheep flock, which are most vulnerable under extensive grazing conditions."

Allington, who grew up on a farm north of Perth, says farmers are anecdotally identifying paddocks that achieve better lamb survival year after year, "but we don’t necessarily know why those particular paddocks are a lot better and whether those paddocks are changing the ewe’s behaviour".

Allington will attach new sensor technology to sheep to capture the location and behaviour of ewes during lambing.

"The project’s a little bit of a proof-of-concept to look at whether the sensor technology can be used to look at maternal behaviour of multiple bearing ewes on a larger scale," he says.

"So things like time of birth, the length of the ewe’s labour, time at the birth site and interactions from other ewes to see how that is affecting lamb survival."

The Grains Research and Development Corporation Award meanwhile went to Lewis Collins for his real-time airborne disease detection and mapping platform.

Collins is working to help farmers reduce their crop losses due to distance, with an innovative device that can detect fungal diseases in the air.

As part of his project he is building a sampling instrument that can be placed on drones and tractors or in the field. The devices are able to detect airborne fungal diseases before plants are infected, allowing farmers to protect their crops more effectively, he says.

"The beauty of what we’ve done is we’ve designed the hardware to accept almost any airborne spore," he says.

"But the magic comes up in the software where we’re using machine-learning algorithms to actually categorise those spores. So as long as we have examples of the disease, we can train our network to pick up anything.

"We have no idea where and how airborne diseases move," he explains for the motivation for his project.

"This is a problem both in agricultural crops but also in hospitals."

While the project was initially designed to target wheat rust, Lewis hopes to apply the technology to other grain crops including barley and oats.

"We just got accepted into Blackbird’s Startmate program, which is probably the biggest startup incubator in Australia," Collins says.

"We’re trying to bring this technology out of the lab and out of academia into commercial, real-world use."

Other winning projects include using comparative genomics to prevent bird flu in poultry, investigations into bacterial causes of pleuritic in slaughter animals and detecting cotton pests and pathogens using environmental DNA from irrigation water.

The Science Awards will be presented at a gala dinner as part of ABARES Outlook conference 2019 from March 5-6 in Canberra.

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