Teagasc researchers have brought easy-to-use technology into the field, by developing a successful data collection mobile app. This app is supporting a long-running project promoting the wider adoption of sustainable conservation tillage systems on Irish farms.
Conservation tillage (CT) is a non-plough-based crop establishment technique that, combined with other measures, can improve soil quality and properties over time and reduce tillage costs. Despite its benefits, it has not been widely adopted across Ireland. This is because CT practices can enable the rapid spread of grass weeds, which in turn reduce crop yields and can lead to total crop failures.
Teagasc’s Enable Conservation Tillage (ECT) project has spent the last few years investigating and offering sustainable, cultural and chemical control solutions and support tools to stop the prevalence of grass weeds on farms. As part of this, members of the project team have created ECT Weed Watch – a unique mobile field app that enables the accurate recording of data at precise locations.
Here, former ECT Technician David Schilder, former ECT Project Advisor Jimmy Staples, Spatial Analysis Unit Senior Researcher Réamonn Fealy and current ECT Project Manager John Mahon share why they created ECT Weed Watch, and the impact it has had so far.
How many farms are involved in the ECT project?
John Mahon: There are 10 ‘focus farms’ involved directly with the project, each with its own crop establishment technique. Our project team advises farms using CT on different methods to help overcome grass weed issues, and then monitors the CT practices and their impact on grass weeds.
The aim of the project is to allow farmers in the tillage industry to adopt CT establishment practices for the long-term sustainability and viability of their farming enterprise.
How engaged have farmers been in the project?
David Schilder: We conducted a large survey of growers across the tillage industry in 2020 and 2021. With the help of Teagasc advisors, Biodiversity Agriculture Soil Environment (BASE) Ireland, industry and professional tillage advisors, over the two years we managed to get more than 120 farmers involved. They were curious about what we were doing and happy to take part.
Jimmy Staples: Through holding events and workshops, we’ve helped to raise awareness and inform the industry of how to identify grass weeds in field, control an infestation and eradicate the problem. The level of interaction and interest displayed by attendees was emphatic.
What led to the development of the ECT Weed Watch app?
David: As I mentioned previously, we conducted a survey across the tillage regions of Ireland. The aim of this was to establish how on-farm management factors drive grass weed populations, to identify and assess grass weed levels on farms and to test grass weeds for herbicide resistance.
Due to the seasonal effects of grass weed prevalence in crops, the survey was done over two years, and required the same two fields on each surveyed farm, in order to have repeat assessments.
We needed a way to accurately return to the same survey points in each of the fields, so we developed the ECT Weed Watch app – a location-based tool that allows for the easy tracking of samples.
How does the app work?
Jimmy: The app enables all data collected by the ECT team and Teagasc tillage advisors to be accurately recorded at a precise location and in a standardised format. It makes gathering data more accurate and enabled the project team to achieve a larger survey sample without compromising the quality of the data collected.
Réamonn Fealy: There are two particular benefits to the approach we took in designing the app. First, as David already outlined, is the capacity for repeat visits to a single point with high accuracy. Second is that standardised data can be viewed in real time if required.
What was the design approach for the app?
Réamonn: We built the app using a forms-based field collection tool known as Survey123, from ESRI Inc.. It runs on mobile devices and integrates seamlessly with AGOL, a cloud-based Geographic Information System (GIS) technology that creates, analyses and maps all types of data.
GIS is a core technology used in Teagasc’s Spatial Analysis Unit. AGOL has been instrumental to the development of the app and is, to my mind, a game changer for the rapid development and deployment of location-based field recording tools.
Jimmy: The project team sat down with Réamonn and ESRI Ireland (the company that supplies the underlying technology and who helped in the design of the Survey123 app), and discussed the important data required from the field assessments.
A plan was drawn up that allowed the capabilities of the app to work in tandem with the data we needed to record. After a few meetings, we had developed a prototype which worked well. Following further small adjustments, ECT Weed Watch was created.
What has the feedback about the app been?
David: It’s been very positive. Team members who have used the app find it to be very functional and easy to use once shown how to. It saves time in the field as it only takes a few minutes to fill out each survey point.
Some users even think it may be beneficial to other projects to adopt such technology for on-farm assessments or research projects within Teagasc.
What’s next for the ECT project?
John: We’re currently analysing the entire survey data collected using ECT Weed Watch, with an aim to publish a paper in autumn 2022. We’re also using the app to continue carrying out studies on different grass samples to assess resistance levels.
The project is due to end in 2023. By then, we hope to have practical management tools for grass weed identification and integrated weed management available for the tillage industry. A lot has been achieved through this project already, largely thanks to the strong communication between the project team, farmers and advisors.
In good company
What did developing an app teach you?
David: I was surprised by how easy it was to customise and design our own unique app. It really was a treat to be able to leave the pen and paper at home.
Réamonn: It was a fantastic example of the potential collaboration that GIS technology can facilitate. We were able to produce an app that met the ECT project team’s needs, all without meeting in person!
Jimmy: With the right team and a bit of flexibility and endeavour, a solution can be found to just about any challenge!
The Enable Conservation Tillage (ECT) Project is a European Innovation Partnership (EIP) funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.