Agritech and data pave farming’s new highway

Pressure has grown on the farming sector in the past decade to better understand and manage its environmental footprint, whether that be greenhouse gases or nutrient losses. But as any farmer will quickly point out, “it’s a tough business trying to manage what you can’t measure.”

In the past five years farmers’ ability to accurately measure those areas they are required to reduce, improve or eliminate has become more feasible.

Tools like GPS, flow meters, soil moisture sensors and stream monitors have been around for some years, but it is thanks to the “internet of things” (IoT) they have had the ability to generate ongoing, accessible and informative data to help manage the farm environment.

Less than two years ago the New Zealand Internet of Things Alliance highlighted there was an additional $500 million a year on the table for New Zealand farmers to make from having greater connectivity and IoT compatibility on their farms.

Farm wide local area networks ensure constant wireless internet connection around the boundaries of even the biggest farm, and an ecosystem of sensors, monitors and recorders can now be established that feed data directly to apps on farmers’ smartphones.

The explosion of data from farms has been mapped by research company Business Insider Intelligence which estimates an average farm will generate 1 million data points every day by next year, compared to barely 100,000 in 2014.

Industry commentators point to New Zealand agriculture entering a “fourth revolution”, characterised by a surge in agrisystem data and technology feeding into cyber-physical systems. The use of artificial intelligence and machine learning is embedded within this technology level.

This is also being pushed along by social expectations on farming to better manage resources, as much as for more precise management of those valuable resources to deliver improved productivity and profits as a result.

Well known Smedley Station, the 5,000ha dry-stock training farm in Tikokino highlights how data has come to be integrated with a new generation of farmers in ways that are quickly and simply understood.

The station links into the FarmIQ software platform, delivering daily updated visibility to station manager Rob Evans on what is happening across the big property’s four blocks.

Developed through joint industry and taxpayer investment, FarmIQ has been developed as a digital platform to accept data from multiple farm sources, placing them into reports and information easily understood, accessed and shared by farmers.

The platform has enabled Evans to integrate the electronically-tagged stock into the farm, turning a compliance requirement into a management tool, providing data on weight gains, in turn prompting more timely decisions on conserving feed or quitting stock early.

“Rather than having to find a book and a calendar, we can just pull up FarmIQ,’” says Evans.

Hand in hand with the data explosion, and platforms to handle it, is the agritech sector that develops the hardware and technology to both generate more data, and to handle what is already there on farm.

The sleeping giant of New Zealand’s export sector, agritech is currently generating $1.5 billion a year in export earnings, chasing wine and kiwifruit for earnings significance.

Backed by the country’s first Industry Transformation Plan (ITP), the sector is expected to grow briskly with expectations it will top $2 billion a year by 2027.

Fenceless farming

Waikato-based agritech firm Halter highlights where New Zealand’s agritech sector can head.

Halter was born from an idea its founder Craig Piggott had on his parents’ dairy farm, when he felt there had to be better use of his Dad’s time than sitting behind cows to get them to the dairy twice a day, and rolling up multiple reels and standards during winter.

After three years of development and a pitch to Silicon Valley investors, Halter was created.

The concept became a reality with the GPS-enabled collars linked through the internet, transmitting location and cow data every second.

Cow placement in a certain area of the paddock is controlled via GPS mapping, with cows trained to stay within a defined boundary by learning to respond to a series of noises and vibrations the collar emits as they stray from their designated area.

Visitors to Piggott’s parents’ farm, now Halter’s pilot farm, are struck by cows grazing without fences, and making their own way to the dairy on a pre-determined signal sent to their collars.

Pre-scheduled paddock exits or shifts to the next virtually-defined break have freed up farmer time, providing the opportunity to break away from the usual demanding routine of being home at a certain time to round up the herd, or getting up extra early to move mobs over winter.

Halter business manager Steve Crowhurst says farmer interest has been high, and a new generation of farmers are excited by the flexibility the system offers, not only for how they schedule their day, but how they set up their farms’ paddock breaks.

“The ability to define a grazing area very specifically, it means they are able to really protect waterways with grazing buffer zones and optimise the feed resource they have at hand.”

Some of Halter’s farmer clients are now pulling out fences on their farms.

“Fences are being removed; total paddock numbers are coming down. It is simplifying the operation and improving efficiencies.”

Smart feeders

While Halter is opening up farm paddocks, Palmerston North-based company Zeddy has developed “smart” feeders that ensure animals are only receiving the amount of supplement they should.

The company’s portable feeder can identify every animal feeding off it by an electronic ear tag and dispenses a pre-set amount of feed.

Any farmer familiar with having to deal with feed troughs tipping over, being plagued by birds in feed bins, or feed stations dominated by larger, more aggressive animals could relate to the solution Zeddy offers.

Zeddy CEO Kate Gwilliam says Zeddy is still in its early days but farmer interest is strong in the technology.

The feeders have multiple applications across all lines of livestock including hinds, goats, calves and heifers receiving supplementary feed.

“So often in the past farmers have bought hardware, only to find after a short period it is obsolete, and their model is no longer able to be fixed or upgraded.

“Our subscription business model means we update the software and hardware and retain close contact with our farmer customers – we feel it is a more sustainable business model.”

Trials by the company have highlighted smaller animals in mobs enjoyed more rapid weight gains when Zeddy feeders administer rations, helping even out weight variations in lines. The feeders can provide supplement for 200-300 cows a day.

With a new generation of tech developers drawn to the primary sector’s many facets of data and technology development, prospects for New Zealand’s primary sector being the test bed for technology with global application are now stronger than ever before.

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