Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Using drones to combat herd home mould

Agdrone founder and chief pilot Warrick Funnell started the business in 2018 after he saw a niche where drones could undertake jobs that helicopters couldn’t do.

Farm technology continues to forge ahead in leaps and bounds and the use of drones in the agriculture sector is one example of how technology is being used in innovative ways.

Warrick Funnell is someone who is at the forefront of drone use in that sector. Funnell is the founder, chief executive and chief pilot of Agdrone Ltd. He started the business in 2018 after seeing a niche where drones could undertake jobs that helicopters couldn’t perform. That sphere of business now makes up 100% of the company’s current workload.

Many dairy farmers are using the company’s drones to spray their herd shelters to rid them of mould. If black mould isn’t removed the plastic quickly degrades and becomes brittle.

A herd shelter is designed to catch as much sunlight and warmth as possible. Black mould on the plastic limits the amount of available light and warmth.

The shelter can be sprayed from a tractor using a spray gun, but the coverage is often incomplete. A drone can achieve complete coverage by flying over it compared to squirting spray 14-15 metres up onto it from a tractor.

“We recently sprayed two herd homes that were both 28 x 123 metres and situated so close together that a tractor couldn’t drive between them. It only took us a couple of hours to spray them,” Funnell says.

“We spray them twice, at right angles, because we don’t want to miss anything. After the first pass the moss or mould opens up. If the second spray is applied within 20 minutes you achieve better penetration and kill rate.”

The drones are flown to each corner of the shelter and those coordinates are mapped into the drone. This allows the drone to spray it with 100% accuracy using GPS. Once the spraying is finished those tracks are downloaded, loaded into Google Earth and sent to the farmer.

At the beginning of 2022 the company bought three new drones; a DJI T10 drone and two DJI T30 Agricultural Drones.

The T10 has state-of-the-art systems and a similar operating system as the larger T30 drones. The T10 is ideal for smaller jobs and those with scattered vegetation. The T30 is an entirely new generation drone. It’s capable of spraying up to 5ha per hour on pasture weeds and up to 2ha per hour on woody weeds.

“They’re very smart machines. Technology changes very fast and the new drones made our old drone look like a Model T Ford,” he says.

Donald and Jodie Gillett milk 620 Friesian cows on their 360 hectare (300 ha effective) dairy farm situated 30 kilometres from Whangarei. They have a 60 x 10 metre herd shelter and Donald had always sprayed it while standing on the tractor and using the gorse sprayer.

“Palm kernel dust sticks to the clear plastic and encourages mould growth. The mould traps more dust and exacerbates the problem, especially on the southern side of the structure,” Gillett says.

“We like to spray the herd home every year. If you don’t spray for two or three years you end up with a black roof. Herd homes are designed to let light in, and you need that light to help dry it out. We also had our 50-bail rotary cowshed sprayed too.”

Gillett feels that one of the big advantages of using a drone is that it eliminates the potential safety risk of standing on the tractor to spray the herd home.

“I feel that you could use a drone to spray a herd home when there’s stock inside it. The herd home must be empty when you spray it with a tractor.” he says.

“The drone worked well and it was certainly a lot easier than doing it from the tractor. We also knew the exact amount and rate of chemicals that were used. It was pretty cool watching the drone at work.”

The realisation that drones are able to precisely apply herbicide to weeds was recently demonstrated when Agdrone undertook 26 jobs in the Rangitikei region selectively spraying Old Man’s Beard in areas where helicopters would have also sprayed the surrounding vegetation.

“We’ve also worked on a smaller 38ha dairy farm spraying 6.7 ha of thistles. Thistles grow in clumps and we were able to precisely spray those thistles, not the pasture. Although we were dearer per hectare than a helicopter, when you compare the price of 6.7ha worth of chemicals to 38ha, it still worked out to be a very competitive rate,” Funnell says.

“When we started the business people tended to think that drones were toys. The drones we now use weigh 70kg when they take off and can carry 30 litres. They’re no longer a toy, they’re a tool.”

This article first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Dairy Farmer.

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