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Farming: Digital technology on the farm. A great way to get the next generation involved.

14 Sep 2018

I have been let down by promises made around digital technology in the past and I was intrigued to discover whether the hype around digital technology in farming was delivering what was promised.

The Bill Gates quote comes to mind where he said, “Generally, we over-estimate what can be achieved in two years, but we under-estimate what can be achieved in ten.”

Here are some of the farming opportunities and practices I’ve seen highlighted under the digital technology banner with some thoughts; these are all either currently in use or at the development stage:

  • Driverless tractors ploughing fields, planting seed and harvesting crops.
  • Wireless sensors on farms feeding soil moisture, weather, gate status and crop data back to a central computer monitored by a farm manager.
  • Precision agriculture or precision farming, a term increasingly in use, used to describe … “Everything that makes the practice of farming more accurate and controlled, including the growing of crops to the raising of livestock.”
  • A precision agriculture conference was held in Hamilton in October last year by the Precision Agriculture Association of New Zealand www.precisionagriculture.org.nz . There are over 30 conference papers available for viewing here . For anyone really interested in getting first hand knowledge of digital farming technology should consider a conference in London on 16 and 17 October 2018 or another in Melbourne on 19 and 20 February 2019. See the Precision Agriculture Association website for details.
  • From Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): the development of mini-glass houses for individuals to use in urban settings that grow plants for food that will reproduce the flavours of the food sourced from your favourite regions of the world with the taste you prefer.
  • Robotic milking.
  • Robotic weed spraying targeting individual weeds, saving on spray.
  • Fenceless farming or virtual fences: Each animal wears a GPS-enabled collar that uses a sound as a warning to not proceed further. Animals must be trained in responding to the sound by way of a mild electric shock. With this technology, the farm manager can control the break-feeding of stock rather than shifting electric fences every day or two, all from the comfort of their office. “Fenceless farming” might be stretching the term a bit as it is not anticipated that these virtual fences replace boundary fences or stop bulls getting into the heifer paddock. Gallagher NZ has teamed up with Australian firm Agersens to develop virtual fencing practices in Australia and Agresearch has joined in with them to fund development being carried out in New Zealand for New Zealand conditions.
  • Genomics: The use of DNA testing. By DNA testing a sample of animals one can get a prediction of the overall genetic potential of flocks of animals. Looking at fertility, weaning weight, growth rate, parasite resistance and so on. Are you making progress year after year? AbacusBio predicts gains of over $60,000 per annum can be achieved by DNA sampling a 3000-ewe flock. Gains come from accumulated gains over many factors such as: more lambs born, higher lamb survival, heavier weaning weights from both ewe effects and lamb effects, higher post weaning growth rates, higher meat yielding carcasses, earlier sales of lambs creating more autumn feed for other stock, fewer light store sales in difficult seasons. Advisory packages on the application of genetics have been developed by AbacusBio and are available through RMPP groups. Click here for more information. And here.
  • Arial robotics or drones. This is the area that interests me the most as I have a background in flying.

Case study: Mark, the 11-year old son of Pip and Neil Gardyne of Otama, Southland, suggested using a drone for checking for cast sheep during lambing on their 465 ha property and his parents invested in a drone to trial it. They became a Beef + Lamb demonstration farm and enlisted Dunedin firm, AbacusBio, to help with the software development.

They described the benefits of using the drone:

  • Mapping of drains
  • Checking their 43 troughs for leaks
  • Counting sheep in large mobs of up to 4000 sheep with an accuracy of ± 2 sheep
  • Checking for cast sheep on the hills. 40% of them were shocked into standing upright on the approach of the drone
  • Monitoring dry matter with the aim of bringing kill dates back by up to 30 days
  • Safety: reducing the time spent commuting around the farm on quad bikes. They achieved a 20% reduction in commuting time in the first year using the drone and expect to get that up to 40% in the second year and a saving of 50% a year eventually. Neil explained that they had both rolled their quad bikes in the past 3 years, that there were an average of 8 deaths a year on quad bikes nationally, so reducing quad bike commuting time was a priority for them.

Pip and Neil thought it was a great way to develop the interest of the next generation into farming and son Mark was certainly proving his worth as the gun flyer of the farm drone.

Keep asking great questions …

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