When Andrea Koch of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney addressed a conference at Texas A&M in May, she put soil in its place: as the engine room of human existence.

“Soil is vital for solving the top five big issues for the globe: food security, water security, energy security, climate regulation and biodiversity,” said Ms Koch, program leader of the US Study Centre’s Soil Carbon Initiative.

“Soil also provides most of what is needed to keep the human body healthy. Humanity relies on the ongoing provision of ecosystem goods and services, and this can only be achieved with a soil resource that is utilised according to its capability, and managed properly to maintain its condition.”

Agriculture is key to soil security, Ms Koch told the Texas A&M audience.

“When it comes to soil management, our best farmers absolutely understand that their soil is their fundamental production asset, and they treat it accordingly. Best farming practice today has an integrated approach to soil improvement and productivity improvement.

“That is the aim of soil security — the win-win of improved soil condition for natural resource and productivity outcomes. Many of our farmers are already securing the soil on our behalf, but we are not giving them the credit for it.”

Ms Koch translated that message into the US Study Centre’s own conference in Canberra in June.

The Soil and Big Data conference looked at the role of always-on, interconnected data in enhancing soil management and farmer productivity.

“In areas like plant breeding, agronomy, fertiliser management, we’re at the end of the technology curve, and we’re now looking for incremental improvements,” she said.

“We haven’t focused on soil productivity at all as a big area of focus for productivity growth. And the technology will enable it.”

The value is not in the data — of which there are already terabytes lying idle in farm computers — but what meaning is extracted from it. 

Speakers representing the US multinationals Climate Corporation and John Deere illustrated the growing interest that professional service providers have in being a conduit for data collected from farms, which they will analyse and value-add.

For instance, John Deere is looking to collect performance data from all its nextgeneration combines (with owner approval), which will then provide benchmarks to tell Deere combine operators whether they are running at peak performance.

Climate Corporation collects thousands of points of data from field soils and from weather stations to offer prescriptions to farmers intended to maximise yield.

Alternatively, farmers can use increasingly cheap data to harvest and manage data themselves.

West Australian farmer Brad Jones told the conference he had 450 soil test zones on his 11,000ha Tammin farm. From the data he collects, he minutely analyses how much nutrient he needs to add to get the best crop based on a risk profile of the soil.

If the soil is only capable of producing a 1.5t/ha crop in an average year, and the crop fails fast in a poor year, Mr Jones cuts back on nutrient inputs to lower the risk of losing money on the crop.

The third channel for “big data” is via industry-approved schemes. The livestock sectors — dairy, pork, beef — already have schemes for collecting genetic data and processing it to improve productivity in their sectors.