John Moloney grew up on a dairy farm near Nenagh, Co Tipperary, where he developed an interest in agriculture from a young age. John worked summers with local silage contractor John Kennedy and went on to study agricultural engineering at IT Tralee and Harper Adams in the UK graduating in 2005, when John was well set up for a career in agriculture.

In 2008, John moved to Melbourne, Australia, where he later took up a career with the ag industry, which today sees him in a role as product manager with Kubota Australia.

John says: “Australia is one of the most diverse countries in the world when it comes to agricultural production. From livestock to large-scale cropping of cereals, cotton, sugarcane and horticultural production, Australia has it all on some of the largest scales you will find.”

A year or two in Australia continues to be a rite of passage for many young Irish people, who have a passion for agriculture. John was no different deciding to move to Melbourne, on a mission to experience everything that Australia has to offer.

Working at Kubota Australia, one of John’s responsibilities is with Kubota’s Great Plains range of seeding and tillage equipment. John shares with us his experiences of working in Australia and New Zealand.

Weather extremes

After gaining some experience working with Australian farmers, John says: “I quickly developed a huge respect for their incredible resilience.”

Australia, he says, is “known as a land of droughts and flooding rains” and he quickly found out why during the first few years there. In January 2009, Australia recorded a record heatwave with a run of days where temperatures exceeded 40C.

In 2010 and 2011, widespread floods hit the state of Victoria. John says: “I recall being in the town of Mildura in February 2011 where the town received 145mm of rain in just two hours.”

Farmers in Australia could lose a few thousand acres of crops and must pick up the pieces and go again. As many Irish farmers lament a particularly wet and difficult spring here, John talks about how farming practices in Australia have evolved to overcome some of the challenges that mother nature dishes out.

Conservation practices

While tillage practices such as ploughing are common in Ireland, no-till farming and controlled traffic farming (CTF) are widely applied in Australia. “No-till farming systems were something quite new to me when I moved to Australia,” says John.

As the name suggests, no-till farming means cutting out all forms of tillage. The main reason is to always maintain soil cover.

This helps to retain precious soil moisture and limit soil erosion.

CTF, as it is known, is a component of no-till agriculture, which involves the use of pre-defined traffic lanes in agricultural cropping land.

“Using tillage to level out wheel ruts or remove compaction is not an option in a no-till system, so this confines traffic to specific areas,” he says.

Precision agriculture and artificial intelligence

An increasing number of tractors being sold in Ireland come auto-steer ready, while more contractors look to get an edge with variable rate technology.

John says: “Similar to Ireland, farmers and contractors are becoming much more comfortable with technology. Sales of fertiliser spreaders with variable rate and section control are increasing steadily and this is without grant incentive.

“In Australia, with seeding equipment, we have more customers using soil and yield maps to employ variable seed and fertiliser rates.”

Section control is almost standard on seeding machines from 6m. In large-scale cropping systems, sowing thousands of hectares a year, these systems are becoming essential to remain profitable and a standard inclusion on new models.

“When I moved to Australia some 15 years ago, I worked in dairy farming where animal ID systems were common allowing activity and rumination monitoring, feed-to-yield systems, etc. This quickly evolved to an uptake in robotic milking systems, as farmers struggled with labour shortages.”

According to John, labour shortages are also a challenge in most other areas of Australian agricultural primary production.

“Today, we are on the cusp of what is arguably the next big revolution in agriculture, which is autonomy and artificial intelligence (AI).”

There are already some trials and testing being done: “They can see very strong demand from the marketplace,” John says.

Inter-row cropping in an Australian vineyard.

In vineyards, for example, where machines follow pre-defined paths in between rows of trees, they are getting very close to seeing truly autonomous machinery at work. John says: “It’s an incredibly exciting time in agriculture with some big changes coming.”

Australian farm machinery market

John reflects on recent developments in Australia.

“In 2023, we saw demand for farm machinery revert to normal levels. Like Ireland, prices for farm machinery rose significantly, especially in the last three to four years. This is resulting in the total sales value of farm machinery growing slightly in 2023, even though the number of tractors sold dropped by about 25%.

“Farmers opting for larger tractors to cover more ground with less staff is also a factor. Kubota is particularly strong in Australia in the lifestyle and small-scale land holder market. This part of the market has been hardest hit with the slow down.

A Great Plains 6m direct drill John set up in New Zealand's Canterbury region.

“Interest rates have risen significantly and inflation is high, putting a dampener on this end of the market. There’s certainly more inventory of tractors around with different machinery brands in Australia so we’re having to work hard on programmes and incentives to retain market share and achieve our goals,” says John.

Kubota’s technology drive

In 2022 Kubota announced a partnership with Tesla co-founder Ian Wright and his Silicon Valley AI technology company, DIMAAG-AI Inc.

“It’s fantastic to see Silicon Valley and the world’s most prominent agricultural companies join forces like this. I really believe we are going to need it as we take on the challenges to overcome climate change, labour issues and effectively do more with less to feed the world’s growing population,” says John.

“The areas where AI is seeing progression in testing is crop spraying using cameras to identify and target weeds selectively or detect irregularities in plants to optimise spraying for pesticides or herbicides.

“AI is used to analyse production data in crops, soil characteristics, weather and make management adjustments earlier than possible before, eg increase or decrease irrigation or fertigation, apply a pesticide.”

Also, he notes quality checking of small fruits with cameras.

“Combining visual and infrared imaging with AI has proven to be better than human quality checking, therefore increasing quality and consistency of the product for the consumer and significantly reducing labour.”

Carbon farming

Carbon farming is a reasonably new industry allowing farmers to earn carbon credits. Earned carbon credits can be sold, contributing to farm incomes. Purchasers of carbon credits are often corporations looking to progress towards a net-zero carbon footprint.

“Carbon farming is something I see more and more farmers looking at here. In many ways, it’s a perfect fit for many Australian agricultural practices because they are already following practices that capture and hold carbon in vegetation and soils. This includes no-till farming and many soil conservation practices such as stubble retention and growing cover crops,” John says.

He says, however, that “the feedback I have received is that the process to become a carbon farmer and receive a second income as a result is quite cumbersome, with a lot of paperwork involved, making some question the feasibility of getting involved”.

A Great Plains mechanical drill over-seeding multispecies into existing grassland.

It can be measured and verified by several methods including soil sampling to measure carbon levels. When trees or shrubs are planted, this is verified by an on-farm inspection.

In the case of earning credits by reducing methane in cattle herds, liveweight gain is measured. Proof and records of a diet change to reduce methane must be kept and site inspections to check can be made.

Carbon credits can be earned in some specific cropping systems, such as cotton, where nitrous oxide emission reduction can be achieved by reducing synthetic nitrogen rates (replace with an organic alternative), improving application method, etc. Again, carbon must be measured and verified by record keeping farm visits and inspection of records is a must.

“In my work with Kubota’s Great Plains range of seeding equipment, I am seeing more activity with establishment of multispecies seed blends with no-till seed drills. This is often part of a farm’s carbon farming programme,” says John.

John Moloney, product manager at Kubota Australia.

Great Plains in Ireland

John notes there “could be an opportunity for some seed drills in Ireland, but the climate and soil types tend to favour narrower row spacing not currently offered”.

For many parts of the US and Australia, 6in row spacing is well accepted because it allows better trash flow when planting into high residue.

Also, in very hard and dry soil conditions, narrow spacing means more metal to get in the ground.

Multispecies swards

Multispecies pasture blends are typically sown in the Australian autumn (usually sown from March to May).

Australian growers are still working to develop knowledge to establish high-quality multispecies pastures.

Multispecies blends that contain broadleaves, such as chicory and plantain, are very sensitive to herbicides.

“Farmers are learning that herbicides are less important with multispecies swards doing a good job suppressing weeds as they establish.

According to John, “I am seeing good success with triple-disc drills like Great Plains no-till drills. The leading coulter on these drills helps prepare a high-quality seedbed with low surface disturbance.”

Customers really looking to go to the next level are favouring Great Plains drills with three seed boxes, so that seeds can be divided out by size and applied at different rates.

“When a diverse blend is mixed and applied as one batch, you get seed settling in the seed box/hopper and not even distribution over the area to be sown.”

Vertical tillage

What is vertical tillage? It is a method of tillage whereby soil is moved vertically or sideways in a “lifting and spading” effect, rather than horizontally like a plough or in the way that many disc cultivators do. It aims to avoid developing density layers in the soil like a plough pan.

Vertical tillage is designed to achieve the goals of many tillage tools with soil conservation in mind.

“It will not suit all farming systems, especially if the goal is to bury all surface residue.”

Vertical tillage tools like the Great Plains TurboMax aim to prepare a high-quality seedbed without aggressively working soil that can lead to erosion problems. It has been used successfully in Australia to resolve issues with some nuisance grass species, such as Kikuyu and bent grass, which can smother other grass varieties.

It is also used in Australian pasture systems in spring where the goal is to gently open up pastures to assist in drying, heating up and preparation for the establishment of summer crops.

Irish farm machines down under

John says: “Some Irish manufacturers have enjoyed success here, but some have also found that the demands and requirements of Australian and New Zealand farmers and contractors can be very different.”

He highlighted that the Irish brands that have been successful are the ones that take the time to visit and understand the market properly.

“After visiting, some changes are often made to the standard Irish models’ offerings to better fit the needs of the Australian and New Zealand market.”

However, he notes: “Hay and silage equipment made in Ireland has been successful here because the conditions in Ireland can be about as difficult as you will find anywhere in the world in my experience.”

  • Precision agriculture well established.
  • Great testing ground for tillage implements due to abrasiveness and hardness of soil.
  • No grants on any farm equipment.
  • Crop diversity, not depending on a single crop to protect income from drought.
  • Irish agriculture has a lot to be thankful for, despite the challenges here.
  • Carbon farming paperwork is tricky.
  • AI is the next frontier.