Dan Bloomer manager of the LandWISE experimental MicroFarm in Hastings is convinced it’s time for a “dirt to the market” overhaul of farming practices, and for farmers to get up to speed with the agrarian computer revolution.
He’s one of the primary sector champions pushing for a review of the value chain, better soil and plant management and an independent and collaborative Future Farming Centre.
A three-year intensive cropping project at the MicroFarm recently returned a 40% onion yield, which Bloomer discovered was a New Zealand average. “We’re doing the soil cultivation, but we’re not capturing the value. Something is going wrong.”
For a start, he says, farmers need to use computer-based technology to improve productivity and management practices at a sub-paddock scale. “The use of technology in farming today can be compared to the office typing pool and filing cabinet of the 1980s.”
Bloomer says GPS guided and track-matched tractors, ploughs, hoes, planters, harvesters and sprayers that minimise overdriving, compacting and over spraying are a great start, but much more needs to be done.
Huge potential might be unleashed by “throwing the current system up in the air, trying to make it land in a different way … and putting it into a new structure … so everyone gets a better return.”
That’s not an easy challenge when millions of dollars are invested. “Looking at one piece at a time doesn’t give you an idea of how changes in one area impact another.”
Bloomer’s convinced remote sensors and drones or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) can reveal where crop or pasture growth is stunted so it can be analysed and fertilised appropriately.
One of the major drivers reshaping farming is the need to comply with the stringent conditions of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2014 (NPS-FM).
The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council is responsible for limits, targets, monitoring and compliance. “It’s the biggest game in town,” says HBRC acting land manager Nathan Heath.
Under the new regime, simply increasing stock numbers to boost production will no longer cut it. “It’s a big numbers game now and the amount of work that needs to be done can be overwhelming,” says Heath.
Remaining profitable may depend on “the smart farming proposition which is almost a paradigm shift” and some, suggests Heath, may not survive the new rules.
“The cap on nitrogen loss into Lake Taupo resulted in a significant change in who was farming and where. While it’s unclear what the impact will be here there’s a risk the same thing will happen.”
The way forward will require diversification, more intimate knowledge of land use, better farm management systems and the use of computer technology to inform best practice.
A range of tools and resources include budgeting packages that model nutrient cycles, including Overseer or Spasmo, to help mitigate nitrogen or phosphorous levels, farm plan templates and accreditation systems.
HBRC may assist by recommending more proactive farm management systems, “a different class of stock, crop rotations or timing for activities might be more cost effective”.
Heath says part of HBRC’s role is to facilitate moving “from competition to collaboration”, brokering access to important data sets and encouraging people to come up with new ideas. “You have to add value without increasing your environmental footprint.”
Future Farming Centre
Dan Bloomer is also convinced the next leap forward for the Hawke’s Bay primary sector will be finding a common platform for smart people involved in the sector to collaborate.
He imagines researchers, water and soil scientists, plant modellers, agronomists, consultants and local and central government working together to transform the region’s productivity.
Currently each operates within their own framework. Patch protection and the way government funding is structured are obstacles to integrating that knowledge.
Although the Government’s National Science Challenges encourage collaboration, Crown Research Institutes with responsibility for different aspects of farming still compete for funding and are expected to return a profit.
While visionaries are trying to point the way forward, Bloomer says a huge amount of their intelligence is going into writing funding applications and producing reports with little time left “to do the actual science”.
Competing across soil, plants and animals is “kind of silly” because the farmer has to work with all of them, although a change may be in the wind.
A group of influential Hawke’s Bay growers, farmers, advisors, researchers and investors has floated the idea of a Future Farming Centre, a hub to coordinate access to research and resources.
And the timing of a $25 million government seed fund to help establish four regional research institutes couldn’t have been better.
After meeting in July, HBRC, Hastings, Napier, Wairoa and Central Hawke’s Bay councils in a rare show of unity agreed to put their joint economic development resources behind the proposal. They’re supported by EIT, Business HB, Plant & Food Research, Pipfruit NZ, Hawke’s Bay Vegetable Growers, LandWise and others.
Dan Bloomer has been asked to front the bid and figure out how this aligns with the Future Farming Centre plans. “If we can capture the synergies this could spin off whole new businesses and innovations and open export options to take our products to the world.”
Initially he sees the focus on horticulture and cropping through soil and farm systems innovation, weather prediction, ICT (information and communications technology), sensing capabilities and mechanical engineering with input from consultants and primary sector support industries.
“When an opportunity like this comes along and councils actually agree to a common purpose it’s really positive and can drive things forward.”
Rethinking land use
Land condition and soil types vary significantly across Hawke’s Bay with only one percent of the soil resilient enough to be used without it being degraded, says HBRC’s Heath.
Smart farming is about finding alternative uses based on suitability for crops, pastures, production or forestry. “In the majority of cases we have a wrong combination of land use based on suitability of the soil.”
All up HBRC has about ten research programmes underway and is investing a million dollars over the next decade rolling out higher resolution soil and sediment mapping and related data sets as a baseline for understanding the land.
The council is using SedNET to identify sediment changes in hill country and farm and stream bank erosion and investing with Landcare Research in mapping the region’s soil. “We can no longer rely on blanket approaches we need higher resolution satellite images so we can be more targeted.”
S-Map (http://smap.landcareresearch.co.nz/home) is moving from the original 1:250,000 and 1:63,000 scale to at least 1:50,000 with more data on soil properties and behaviour.
Flux metres across a range of farms and public property will help determine nutrient levels and inform farm planning and more targeted environmental investment with the initial focus on cleaning up the Tukituki River.
Although there’s no “blatant pollution”, Heath says there’s now a line in the sand. While many farmers may have ignored the impact of their practices on the region’s waterways they’re now being forced to address this because “there are consequences if we don’t.”
There’s significant potential for diversification, including in the high country under the ranges where summer moisture is retained and it’s ideal for breeding deer hinds.
Richard Lawson and his wife Emma run Glenbarr, west of Ongaonga, as part of the family’s Riverslea Trust; they have deer, cattle, crops including malting barley, silage, maize and grain, and are experimenting with new grasses.
The Lawson’s use their own bore to irrigate but believe the Ruataniwha Dam, just over the hill, could be a game changer. “It will open many more gates and opportunities for finishing the deer, cropping and seed production.”
The seed they’re testing is only grown in the South Island. “If we get more water opportunities seed production should increase … making it worthwhile for companies exporting those feeds to set up shop in Hawke’s Bay.”
While deer numbers dropped from a high of 20,000 down to about 12,000 in recent years, Lawson, who spent six years as chairman of the Hawke’s Bay Deer Farmers Association, says it may be time for some farmers to get back into the game.
He has 800 breeding hinds and sends all their progeny, via local company First Light Venison, to Venison Packers in Feilding for processing and packing.
The high cost of becoming compliant, including fencing off rivers and streams, didn’t help the industry in recent tough years; neither did strong incentives from the dairy industry to move to milking.
That left “10-15% of Hawke’s Bay farms with deer fencing in place and with dairying now struggling, the outlook for venison is looking ‘quite good’, ”says Lawson.
The Deer Industry New Zealand and the Deer Farmers Association are working with like-minded Hawke’s Bay farmers to develop smarter farming practices so they’re more cost effective, efficient and environmental friendly.
They’ve also released a second revision of the Deerfarmers Landcare Manual covering best practice, management, fencing, welfare and environmental issues to ensure investors know what they’re getting into.
Lawson says deer farming has entered the digital age. For him that’s meant computer budgeting through to electronic tracking (EID) and monitoring of animals “so we know where they’re coming from, where they’ve been and who they’re going to.”
He’s making use of aerial mapping and GPS for marking out paddocks and relies on strong communications links with seed and fertiliser reps and contractors. “We need to keep informed about what’s new, what works for us and what hasn’t worked for others.”
What farmers need
While hundreds of developers are chasing primary sector business with their gizmos, Dan Bloomer says they often fail to link their technology with what farmers actually need.
That was highlighted on the final day of the LandWISE Farm of 2030 conference in May when a group of 20 farmers and researchers looked at the practicality of the offerings.
In the end, Bloomer says, the researchers changed the way they thought about how technology could “add value and provide solutions to the people on the land.”
One inspiring solution involved GPS-guided, weed killing robots that navigate around a farm before heading back to base for a refill.
They can work within designated areas 24/7 using sensors to detect different weed types then apply the appropriate herbicide through inkjet style nozzles or dig out or zap resistant weeds with microwaves.
Bloomer, says advances in sensors, automation technology and artificial intelligence (AI) are “really game changing” and he wonders how Hawke’s Bay’s innovative software and robotics developers might apply this thinking in a different context.
Using sensors to identify urine patches in a paddock also looks promising with robots flushing the soil behind cows as they move between break fences and into the dairy shed. A prototype, on a quadbike was demonstrated at the FarmWise conference.
Like quadbikes, drones with increasing battery life and the ability to carry cameras and smart electronics could become an invaluable part of the farmer’s arsenal.
Not only can they potentially tell you where you need to send the sheep dogs or find lost animals, they could identify where grass or crops need more fertiliser or irrigation. However the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will have to change the rules which state the operator must always have drones within view.
Meanwhile trials are underway in Hawke’s Bay with dozens of wirelessly connected traps that register when predators are caught, potentially saving around 70% in the cost and labour of pest control.
RFID (radio frequency identification) tags add value to livestock management as part of the gate to the plate tracking and are even being used to keep data on hay bales or wool fleeces.
Smartphones are essential tools for the sector when combined with apps that read sensors, process images to detect plant or soil health, control irrigation or generally assist management processes.
And yet, even in not so remote areas, the decade old dilemma of cellular coverage remains an inhibitor to uptake. Wireless hotspots can help but wider access is often negligible or non-existent.
Rather than wielding a big stick, HBRC’s land use manager Nathan Heath is confident farmers, aware of their own properties in extremes of climate, are innovative enough to identify the right smart farming solutions.