The opportunity for precision farming in NZ
Technology is transforming the way we do business – so why are some in New Zealand’s primary sector lagging behind?
Tasked with lifting the awareness and use of precision agriculture across NZ’s primary sector, Chair of Precision Agriculture Association Roger Robson-Williams has spent the best part of the last 20 years looking at the benefits technology can bring.
Benefits he says could be a game changer.
“Technology has the potential to make farms more productive and clean up the environment while helping tell a story through the traceability and verification. You can take the clean green New Zealand story and actually back it up with data and monitoring,” says Robson-Williams.
A recent ANZ survey of agri customers showed 45 per cent were using technology to help them measure and monitor their environmental footprint, but the agri sector in general has been slow to adopt.
“We have got a very nimble agri sector, given the lack of public subsidies for production, so people tend to be more business savvy and take opportunities that come up. It surprises me the uptake of precision agriculture and digital horticulture isn’t greater.”
Robson-Williams’ guess as to the reason behind the slow uptake is because the economic case for investing in technology is not always clear.
“I don’t get the impression we have a very clear strategy for how we develop both the agri-tech sector for its own export value, but also to help support our primary production sectors.”
NZ’s primary sector drives the economy; creates jobs and puts food on tables around the world but productivity growth has largely relied on intensification.
With future expansion challenged by the impact of land use on water quality, particularly in dairy, precision farming offers an opportunity for new productivity gains and ensures that as an agricultural nation and exporter NZ stays ahead of the game.
“What farmers are trying to do with precision technologies is to manage as much of the uncertainty and variability as they can,” says Robson-Williams.
The easiest way to understand precision agri, or precision farming, is to think of it as everything which makes the practice of farming more accurate and controlled when it comes to the growing of crops and raising livestock.
“Done in the right way, you can get increased productivity, reduced environmental impact – including lower nutrient losses and fewer greenhouse gas emissions - and a compelling and verifiable provenance story.”
A key component of this approach to farming is the use of information technology alongside things like GPS guidance, irrigation systems, sensors, robotics, drones, variable rate technology and soil sampling.
Those using technology in their agri-businesses are quick to point out the benefits, particularly when it comes to meeting consumer expectation and the changing environmental regulations around farming.
Te Awamutu dairy farmer John Hayward says the days of writing everything in a little yellow book and putting it in your top pocket are long gone.
“For us, technology is a big part of what we are doing, and it’s making our day-to-day life simpler.”
Halo allows them to measure all the water usage on farm; a weather station measures rain fall, soil moisture and soil temperature, and they also measure the milk temperature in the vat.
All the data is recorded by TagI.t technology and can be exported to stakeholders, like the Regional Council, to show they are farming within water consents and managing their environmental footprint.
This type of measuring and monitoring allows Hayward to understand the environmental impact of his operation and how to mitigate it.
“If you own property in New Zealand, you have a responsibility to know what your footprint is and know how you are going to mitigate it. Whether you own a house in town, a farm, or industry, it’s important and your responsibility as a property owner is to take care of your footprint,” he says.
Hops growing in Nelson monitored with sensor technology
Further south in Nelson, Hop grower Cam Ealam is using technology to optimise the use of nutrients for his crops.
He has installed moisture meters in the hop garden which record the moisture content and temperature of the soil and also help monitor nutrient levels in the soil.
“We can actually monitor or track when to put fertilizer applications on, and track how the plants are taking up nutrients. Alongside this you can see where there have been high rainfall events, and where there is leaching,” he explains.
“That is a valuable tool in terms of timings of fertiliser applications, insuring appropriate amounts are being put on and the plants are utilising what you apply.”
It’s easy to see how better targeting of inputs can give the same or even greater level of production with fewer inputs, but Robson-Williams says there is even greater potential beyond traditional precision farming with sensing and sorting technology and machine vision.
“Instead of harvesting all the kiwifruit or apples and putting them all in one bin and then subsequently sorting and grading them we asked if there were smarter ways we could sort and grade them on the orchard. This could help growers and pack houses prioritise the cooling and management of the top quality fruit that have just been harvested.”
The fast growing tech sector, which is now the third largest and fastest growing export sector, worth over $NZ6.3 billion in 2015 and employing 5 per cent of the NZ workforce, is increasingly finding solutions to global problems.
Robotics Plus is developing innovative orchard robotics and Compac has developed world leading technology in sensing and sorting technology for the packhouse.
Engineer Craig Piggott’s GPS, solar powered cow collar, Halter, can self-herd cows, send data about their behaviour, emotions and health to a farmer’s phone and also keep them away from waterways.
Halter could completely do away with the need for fences.
Robson-Williams thinks New Zealanders could do better to support and nurture home-grown Kiwi innovation to solve some problems.
“The NZ agritech sector is a complicated ecosystem of start-ups along with small and larger companies doing some neat stuff but often somewhat in isolation. The Precision Agriculture Association is doing what it can to promote on-farm uptake but my sense is that there might be a stronger role for government here to support collaboration, exchange of ideas and coordination,” he says.
The opportunity to support agritech to improve New Zealand’s agriculture sector appears clear, how to do that less so.
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