Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Hitting the agritech sweet spot with farmers

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Agritech has to be viable, feasible and reliable for it to win favour with farmers.
Professor Pavel Castka says farmers and consumers risk becoming more cynical about certification schemes, and combining iwi’s approach with modern technology may help reduce this.
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This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

Wading through the vast array of technology available can be a daunting prospect for dairy farmers looking to invest in new gadgets to make the job easier.

The aim should be to hit that sweet spot between viability, feasibility and reliability, DairyNZ research engineer Brian Dela Rue said at the organisation’s Farmers Forum in Waikato.

Making a tech decision is very much down to the individual farmer and is about identifying the need on the farm, the gap, and whether that gap can be filled with training staff or if the answer will be new technology.

Assessing value and return on investment is difficult but financial factors such as time saved and improved results are considered.

“What we find with a lot of the technologies that we look at is that it’s the non-financials that are the key part for farmers,” Dela Rue said.

These include making the business more socially acceptable to family members who may have left farming.

New technology is not always “plug and play” and it often it leads to information being captured that then needs to be used on the farm. This may mean the farmer or staff will need to be upskilled, he said.

Dela Rue suggested making one staff member their “tech champion”.

“Pick someone who is really into technology and it is their job to make the most out of it.”

He and senior scientist Callum Eastwood work at DairyNZ where they research technological advances in the dairy industry.

Their work includes understanding the needs farmers have around technology and pooling that to help guide technological investments.

Recently, this included investigating grazing management and pasture assessment technologies and working with farmers around their main criteria for grazing management software.

Those criteria are then shared with companies looking to develop these types of products. 

They also capture feedback from farmers in a survey undertaken every five years.

Eastwood said new technologies can help farmers work more sociable hours. These may include in-shed automation or virtual herding. 

The rise of animal wearable technology also gives farmers ways of improving animal and farm performance because it provides farmers with information at an individual animal level. 

“This can help you make better decisions. Getting and attracting people on farms is always a challenge and having technology may attract people.”

It can also compensate for staff who do not have a strong background in dairying. 

Halter in paddock drafting
There has been greater uptake in using satellite technology and smarter software for grazing management and pasture assessment such as the Halter technology holding cows within “virtual” paddocks, defined on a digital farm map.

Farmers also like new technology because they enjoy the challenge and it gives them opportunities to better meet regulatory compliance.

“We think that the Holy Grail could be hands-free compliance. If you have the right data streams coming in, maybe you wouldn’t need to fill out things over and over again.”

The pair have just completed the 2023 survey, which shows that the most popular technologies being adopted on farms are around the dairy shed.

These include automated tasks – cup removers, teat sprayers, in-shed feeding and auto drafting.

The update of cow wearables has been the big bolter in tech uptake since its last survey in 2018, shifting from 3% of farms having cows fitted with a type of sensor to 16%.

A large percentage of these farms have rotary sheds, indicating it is farmers with larger herds who are adopting this technology.

These larger herd farmers are more likely to adopt new technology because the value proposition is better with the larger scale.

Dela Rue said the reasons for not adopting technology on farms vary. 

There may be a lack of perceived value. The farmer has plans to upgrade their milking shed and often it is not appropriate to add tech to the older shed. The performance of the data is not proven, the farm’s internet connection is not good enough or the technology does not integrate with existing systems. 

Looking ahead, the pair see a potential future in augmented reality technology playing a role in farming. 

This has the user wearing a headset to access information hand-free. The technology is still in its infancy with the headset being extremely clunky, but there could be value in it if those headsets become more streamlined.

Camera technology has also made huge advancements over the past decade. Eastwood pointed to OmniEye as an example of where this has been used on dairy farms, with the company using it to detect cow lameness.

He also foresees sensor technology on pastures to better measure nitrogen application rates.

“We see those ‘on the go technologies’ will also be a theme area for the future.”

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