In the clear winter sky above Central Otago, a drone follows a fenceline up a hill.
It darts and slows making small detours to the left and right, and now and again hovers in one spot. Some of the fenceline sags under drifts of snow, and here the drone pauses.
Two years ago Kawarau Station owner Jon Anderson invested in the drone, with an eye on using it to check fences during heavy snowfalls. Doing this on foot was time-consuming and heavy on manpower, and the drone could do it in a matter of minutes, he says.
Back at the homestead, Anderson watches the images sent back by the drone on a laptop at the kitchen table, searching for breaches and damage to the fenceline. He also views the peripheries for sheep that are cast or having difficulties lambing.
He says the drone has become invaluable to managing his 10,000-hectare property.
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Anderson is just one of many farmers in New Zealand who has embraced modern technology to make farming their properties more productive and more environmentally sustainable.
The future of farming technology
The United Nations (UN) estimates a global rise in 2 billion people to 9 billion by 2050 when agricultural consumption is likely to be 60 per cent higher than it was in 2005. Feeding this growing population “while nurturing the planet will be a monumental challenge”, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. To cope with population increase, agriculture must become smarter and less wasteful.
Fortunately, the growth of technology, innovations and apps is helping farmers make quicker and more accurate decisions to farm more sustainably, is making it easier for them to do business, and in many cases, is changing their bottom line.
And it doesn’t look like the increase in the use of technology is going to slow down any time soon.
Precision farming was started in the mid-80s, born out of the military, aviation and space technologies. It involves the use of technology to allow a targeted application of water and nutrients to match what the crop needs. Farmers can be more specific about the quantities of fertilisers and water used, to allow just the right growth to optimise farm productivity.
Raj Khosla, a professor of precision agriculture at Colorado State University, visited New Zealand last year.
He said he believes` precision agriculture has come a long way in the last 30 years and is a way of growing more food with fewer resources.
“Agriculture continues to be one of the largest consumers of fresh water on the planet and as the population is increasing there is increasing pressure on the same natural resources,” he says.
“So how do we grow more to feed more mouths and do it with less nitrogen, less water and fewer inputs in general? Enhancing efficiencies is one of the significant goals of precision agriculture.”
Precision farming in New Zealand
Mid Canterbury farmer Craige Mackenzie is a leading proponent of precision farming.
He has a 200-hectare arable cropping farm at Methven, interests in a dairy farm and was the International Precision Ag Farmer of the Year in 2016.
Mackenzie first took up precision agriculture in 2008.
“We were doing the best we could with what we had I guess, but being able to step it up and being able to spatially apply fertiliser, water, nutrients, and herbicides just made such a massive difference,” he says.
“But first you had to get around the technology and know it was robust and affordable.
“Every time we spray a crop, we’re taking an image,” Mackenzie says, who bought a drone fitted with a multi-spectral camera that can tell him about the quality, cover and biomass of his pasture.
“We have three years’ worth of data which show that no water has gone past the root zone during the growing season in that time.”
That means no nitrates or phosphates are leaching from the land, he says.
“Some of the neighbours use twice the water that we do.”
Mackenzie still sprays—plant-growth regulators, trace elements, fungicides—but the doses of each are tailored in real time to the needs of each square metre of ground, informed by an array of vegetative index sensors and a Trimble GPS unit aboard his sprayer.
He says the benefits from precision agriculture are huge, but like anything, it has to be done right.
“The critical thing for us is around environmental sustainability, and that is good for the bottom line generally, so it is not hard to get those benefits.”
Geographic information systems (GIS)
GIS was crucial for Mackenzie’s converted dairy farm because the realigned fences of the new farm changed the fertility of the paddocks.
There are two benefits to the GIS mapping, he says. The technology makes his farm environmentally and financially stable, and the financial stability means he can invest in more technology to make it more ecologically stable.
For instance, he has been able to reduce his water use by 30 to 40 per cent.
The property is divided into 35 zones that receive precisely what they need, saving on inputs of water and fertiliser.
The paddocks have also been mapped for soil texture and harvest yields.
“The use of this technology means that it is possible to avoid waterways and other sensitive areas and eliminate environmental impact.”
Mackenzie says innovations are on the way including real-time soil sensors for nitrogen, potassium and nitrates which show what is leaching.
Soil monitoring spatially from the cloud or satellites is also on the horizon.
“There is a range of stuff coming out that is pretty cool.”
Electronic identification (EID) tagging for livestock
John Douglas Clifford has farmed Stonyhurst in North Canterbury for 35 years. The 10,000 breeding ewes, 600 cows and 440 breeding hinds are all EID tagged.
As a pioneer in EID and tagging, Douglas Clifford says being able to record and make decisions based on sound quality data has always made sense to him.
EID allows animals to be identified, located, and tracked using radio frequency signals. Over time, an animal’s weight history can be traced, as can good and bad performers, and the input of resources can be managed to ensure profits are maximised.
The “reader” delivers information from the tags while the animal is on a weigh platform, or running through a race.
The station’s half-bred’s wool has typically ranged from 18 to 29 microns – the ‘sweet spot’ for Stonyhurst is 23 to 25 microns for its contract with American clothing company Smart Wool.
“We are drafting all our sheep into micron groups for shearing and mating and monitoring how micron diameters are changing as the sheep age.”
The results are speaking for themselves. The amount of wool meeting the requirements for Smart Wool is increasing by around 5 per cent annually and the average micron diameter of the station’s rising two-tooths has gone down by 2 microns in the past 12 months alone.
“That’s equivalent to a 35 per cent increase in value which, in theory, should pay for the whole system by itself in one year.”
The goal is to make even more of the information they have, Douglas-Clifford says.
Robotic milking sheds
In 2015 Aad and Wilma van Leeuwen of van Leeuwen Dairy Group developed what was at the time the world’s largest robotic dairy shed.
In a nutshell, robotic, or voluntary milking systems allow dairy cows to live indoors and be milked without human labour. At the core of the system is a type of agricultural robot, computers and special herd management software.
The van Leeuwens saw a challenging opportunity when a 600-hectare property at Makikihi came up for sale. There was ample potential – enough land to build a barn and grow the feed to sustain it.
However, the land was within Environment Canterbury’s orange (at risk) and red (unacceptable) water quality zones. They needed to prove the farm would be run “sustainably” using only the effluent from the barn as fertiliser.
“On this farm, what comes out of the barn is recycled and goes back on to the farm,” said Wilma van Leeuwen when it was first launched.
“We’ve proved to the authorities that what we are doing here is sustainable.
“The farm grows all its own cow fodder on surrounding land, and so completes the cycle of a completely self-sufficient farm.”
The cows are trained to enter the milking stall and be milked voluntarily. Lured in by a snack of meal pellets, they are milked by robots with hydraulic arms guided by optical cameras and dual lasers.
Each robot is controlled by a touch screen, with the capability of remote operation from the central office, suspended below the ceiling with a birds-eye view of the barn.
Special collars and ear tags collect data on the cow’s yield, how many times a day it has milked, and its general health. If the cow has milked recently, the robot turns it away.
Back to drones
Meanwhile, on Kawarau Station, come mustering, it’s not always a helicopter, shepherds and dogs doing the work.
It has been for mustering where we have found the drone particularly useful, Anderson says.
“One morning I kicked off mustering 2000 wethers and left home at 8 am, drove 20 minutes to where I launched the drone, and we had them down by 10.30am, in time for a coffee. Normally it would have taken three men and a ute to bring them down, and we’d not be finished by evening.”
Anderson says the sheep are wary of the drone and respond well, moving away from it without becoming overly spooked. Neither does it make his dogs or shepherds redundant – instead it integrates well with both.
“It won’t supersede traditional mustering – you still need dogs and manpower. But mustering the other morning – to get to where I sent the drone would have taken an hour, but it was there in three minutes.”
Mackenzie has the last word
Our farms have become more efficient and are using fewer inputs to grow a similar or greater amount of produce, he says.
Technology-including the uptake of geographic information systems is helping to drive this, meaning farmers that take on precision agriculture have less impact on the environment than in the past.
“People are beginning to realise that the technology is robust and that the support’s there to help people work through the process. Because the data is fine, but you need to know how to turn it into good decisions that are financially and environmentally sustainable, which go hand in hand—they’re not exclusive.
“This will continue to be the way forward as we need to meet the challenges of environmental and financial sustainability.”
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