Precision water and nutrient management to support sustainable intensification of smallholder farming systems

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Futuristic farming

This is one of two research projects developing new data-driven tools for precision agriculture, climate resilience and environmental benefits. The University of Manchester is the home institution for this project. To view the Melbourne-based partner project, click here.

Agriculture underpins rural livelihoods and economies across the Global South. However, crop yields achieved by smallholder farmers often fall far below agronomic potential. Limited or inefficient use of crop inputs – such as irrigation and fertilisers – is a key cause of crop yield gaps in smallholder farming systems.

A lack of reliable information about expected yield and income benefits, along with farmers’ aversion to investments in inputs like fertiliser or fuel for irrigation, is one of the main underlying drivers of low or inefficient input use in smallholder farming systems.

Development of data-driven advisory products and services that effectively empower smallholder farmers to make more informed and precise input use decisions therefore has the potential to be a game changer for rural development and climate change adaptation.

However, while digitally enabled tools for precision agriculture have scaled rapidly over recent years in high-productivity agricultural systems in regions such as Europe and Australia, their success in smallholder farming systems has been much more limited with most farmer-facing smart farming tools struggling to sustain outcomes at scale beyond the pilot phase of product development.

This PhD project will address these issues by developing new data-driven methods for precision input management in smallholder environments through integration of process-based crop modelling, advanced data analytics, and farm-level agronomic and socio-economic data stacks.

Project goals

The project will focus on a case study of irrigation and fertiliser management under climate uncertainty in rice-wheat production systems in South Asia, where low levels of water and fertiliser use are the primary driver of yield gaps for millions of rural farmers.

Key objectives of this project will be to:

  1. Critically evaluate the status, strengths, and weaknesses of existing data driven DSS and advisory tools used to guide water and fertiliser input management in smallholder farming systems in South Asia.
  2. Develop a computationally efficient and reliable approach combining crop modelling (APSIM), machine learning and optimisation techniques for determining optimal allocation of limited water and fertilizer inputs in small-scale production systems in target regions.
  3. Evaluate yield, income and environmental outcomes of optimised water and fertiliser management strategies in comparison with existing farmer heuristics and assess how these benefits are affected by differences in farm characteristics, production settings, model and input data uncertainty.

Supervision team

The University of Manchester: Doctor Tim Foster, Doctor Ben Parkes

The University of Melbourne:  Doctor Shu Kee Lam, Doctor Alexis Pang, Professor Pablo Zarco Tejada

*Click on the researcher's name above to learn more about their publication and grant successes.

Who we are looking for

We are seeking a PhD candidate with the following skills:

  • Demonstrated experience in the field of biogeochemistry and machine learning.
  • Demonstrated experience with optimisation/modelling.
  • Demonstrated ability to work independently and as part of a team.
  • Demonstrated time and project management skills.
  • Demonstrated ability to write research reports or other publications to a publishable standard (even if not published to date).
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills.
  • Demonstrated organisational skills, time management and ability to work to priorities.
  • Demonstrated problem-solving abilities.

Further details

The PhD candidate will benefit from the combined expertise of the project supervisors, and the embedding into two research environments.

The candidate will be enrolled in the PhD program at the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering (MACE) at the University of Manchester and in the PhD program at the department of Agriculture and Food at the University of Melbourne.

This PhD project will be based at the University of Manchester with a minimum 12-month stay at the University of Melbourne. The candidate will be part of Dr Tim Foster and Dr Ben Parkes’ Agriculture, Water and Climate research group focused on development of data-driven crop yield modelling (including several long-term projects using the APSIM model and data assimilation approaches for precision agricultural management (e.g, irrigation use and crop choice optimisation) in farming systems globally. While at the University of Melbourne, the candidate will work with world-leading experts specialising in fertiliser management (Dr Shu Kee Lam and Dr Alexis Pang) and agricultural data informatics (Professor Pablo Zarco-Tejada).

They will also collaborate closely with external partners, at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in South Asia and Cornell University in the United States, who will provide access to a range of primary datasets and local research expertise to support the project.

To apply for this joint PhD opportunity, and to view the entry requirements, visit How to apply.

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