Powering great farmers of the future

New Zealand technology is moving ahead at a fast pace, with dairy farmers facing mounting pressure surrounding compliance to hit tough environmental targets, and businesses looking to develop new concepts to help farmers stay in profit. On a recent trip to explore some of the latest new products, soon on their way here to support British farmers, Sarah Peacocke discovered some innovations that could change the way we think, and manage, future dairy farms.

A management tool that pulls together water and effluent management, weather information, irrigation scheduling, soil data and minimises the risk of leaching, is winning innovation awards and offering farmers a unique way to stay ahead of the environmental curve in New Zealand.

Regen, a company established to create world-class, technology, solutions for the agricultural sector, was established in 2010, when work across the country, and in collaboration with leading universities, proved its app could prevent ponds from overflowing and over-irrigation of dairy effluent.

Described by CEO Ms Hawkins as being the ‘scientist in your pocket’ she says the app takes the strain out of all on-farm water-based monitoring, resulting in easy-to-follow recommendations sent to your phone, every day.

“Regulations around effluent are becoming stricter and our authorities are looking for evidence of non-compliance,” says Ms Hawkins.  “There is no ‘normal’ anymore with differing weather patterns, so we looked to develop a system that would deliver a solution moving forwards.  We moved on from just monitoring the weather and application windows, to monitoring the storage.”

She points out that spring in New Zealand is the busiest time on farm, with breeding and calving going ahead apace.  Going into this period, slurry lagoons should be empty, or at least running at between 10% and 15% capacity.  However, somewhat to her surprise, she found out this was not always the case.

“The monitor in the pit runs on a red, amber, green traffic light system, and I was surprised how many farms weren’t following the recommendations they were sent,” she says.  “The software sets targets throughout the year, and working in harmony with soil probes, tells farmers when it is ‘safe’ to spread.”

A lot of the water issue on farm comes from the resultant run-off from parlour and yard washings, and if the lagoons are not monitored closely, it’s easy to end up with a backlog going into winter, when it isn’t possible to spread.  “It then becomes very expensive and often farms are paying a lot of money to bring a lorry in to remove the effluent just sitting in the lagoon.

“Our challenges in the future revolve around carbon zero, greenhouse gases and water quality.  All will require change – in some cases massive change – and our system helps you to farm better and more responsibly.”

“We want to empower great farmers around the world to do their jobs even better, by forming partnerships that will make them farm more cost-efficiently and cost-effectively.”

Still looking at environmental products, Davey, a Kiwi water products company, is working on a plug-and-play water treatment system, designed to improve the quality of livestock drinking water on farms, something fast becoming a must-have on New Zealand dairy units as the drive for quality milk production continues.

Bruce Chave, former general manager NZ and South Pacific, explained that the product range offers water treatment solutions for both the farm and house, and is aimed at stock and equipment as well as buildings.

“In some ways the more automation comes on farm, the more important proper cleaning becomes,” he says.  “Most important is that, although to begin with farmers are sceptical, once they start seeing real benefit, they’re keen to get involved.”

He says producers have seen an 8 to 10% increase in kg/milk solids, coupled to improvements in animal health such as better empty rates, body condition scores, somatic cell counts, improved fertility and easier calvings.  “The trends we’re seeing at the moment are anecdotal, but we’re amassing evidence as we go.”

The single biggest improvement has been when water laden with bacteria or pathogens is treated.  Most farm water comes from a borehole, and can include higher levels of nitrates, iron and manganese.  Boreholes are often relatively shallow, so pick up a lot of the elements of surface water.  “Unless the water is pulled through calcium rock or spring fed, it’s rarely clean.”

He says Davey sees nutrients settling out at the bottom of a water trough, so wasted, and stressed the importance of both clean water and clean troughs.

“We supply an alarmed system which monitors water use – whether it increases or decreases.  The farmer gets the warning first, but if for some reason he doesn’t react, we do.

“Each system is bespoke, dependent on individual needs and situations. Even on adjacent farms, or within the same farm in a different area, water quality can vary tremendously.  We’re getting live data all the time, updated continuously.  We filter water, soften it, use an ion exchange, correct the pH and sterilise.  Our target is to bring stock drinking water up to the same standard as New Zealand drinking water.”

“We’re hoping to trial this system in the UK and Ireland shortly, and also to introduce our effluent management systems, where the emphasis on effective water management is gaining a lot of interest.

“Milk buyers want to audit the supply chain, and with water such a large part of milk production, it’s coming under increasing scrutiny.”

 

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About The Author

John Swire - Deputy editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is a season ticket holder at Stoke City and also of late has become a fitness freak, listing cycling, swimming and walking as his exercises of choice.