Hamish Fletcher

Business reporter for the NZ Herald

Connecting the clever farm

Those using information to gain productivity will be the most successful. Photo / Dean Purcell
Those using information to gain productivity will be the most successful. Photo / Dean Purcell

From his high country sheep station at the headwaters of the Rangitata gorge, Don Aubrey is 55km from the nearest town and 105km from a city.

He can remember carting merino wool to Timaru, 70km away, to sell at auction, where if a grower struck bad luck 12 months of work would be near wasted.

But through adopting and adapting to new technology, Don now has more of a hand in his own fortune.

From an armchair in South Canterbury, he can follow a wool auction in Melbourne via satellite and track the prices other growers are getting for their lots.

"Watching prices gives me a pretty good lead," Aubrey said.

"With the sales coming through I might recognise some of the property names from New Zealand and its characteristics and that gives me a good steer," he said.

"If we think the market is where we want it, I send an email through to the selling company and off we go."

This level of connectivity and the ability of farmers to access real-time information is becoming the lifeblood of agriculture in the 21st century.

David Walker, rural market manager at information and communication technology company Gen-i and a former dairy farmer from the Taranaki, said those who can gather data and use it to make productivity gains will be the sector's most successful in the coming years.

"The modern No 8 wire is data and how it can be converted into meaningful information, how it can be twisted and bent and used," Walker said.

With the Government's rural broadband initiative set to begin in July, more farmers will have the opportunity to collect and process elaborate sets of information.

This practice is becoming more complex than the jotting down of stock-counts in a dog-eared notebook.

Aubrey described how by combining market prices with the quantity and quality of wool expected from each sheep, he could work out which animals were worth keeping.

This data was stored on a computer database and linked to each animal through a radio tag.

"You can assess all of your young stock, you can walk down a whole line of sheep with a magic wand, recording tags and at the end of it, it will tell you exactly which sheep [has the quality of wool you're after]," Aubrey said.

"You can decide to get the information at the dollar value. Say for example [you decide] every sheep that produces less than $50 of wool gets culled," he said.

"You can walk down with the wand after you've pre-entered in the numbers and the wand [will tell you which sheep fit that criterion].

"You can't get more market-led than that - that is where the market is telling you which sheep to keep and which to get rid of on a dollar-value basis."

Aubrey said tests had also begun on GPS collars to track the grazing patterns of sheep, to see if a flock needed herding towards particular areas that they would not graze on if left to wander.

Walker said other farmers used devices to improve grass yields by measuring how much fertiliser was going into fields.

"A farmer can go online and GPS technology can show where fertiliser is spread.

"Where the technology is going, is that if you link [fertiliser information] with data on how much grass is growing, then you can start to look at if there is enough grass on the property to feed the animals and whether more fertiliser is needed or whether you need to take animals off it."

Walker stressed the future was not just about the gathering and analysis of data, but the sharing of it with those who buy agricultural goods.

He said pilot programmes were under way for meat processing plants to see in real time the amount and weight of stock on farms.

"If those meat companies can see [this information] and work with the growers, they can say, 'You've got 100 animals over 200kg, how about we pull them from the farm, we've got a marketplace for them'," he said.

Moreover, as these schemes lift off the ground, he said processing plants would be able to track animals coming off land and trace meat through the food chain "from farm to fork".

Federated Farmers president Don Nicolson said the practice of gathering data and managing information is something farmers have had to become increasingly good at to survive.

The popular image of the "gruff farmer" toiling away manually was out of step with reality, Nicolson said. "Farmers operate in the real world, and it is a smart world they work in. "

"The generation prior were a tough people, they had to break in this country, they were the workhorses that broke in the land.

"This generation is now using smart technology and hopefully our image is much changed."

FIBRE AND WIRELESS TO FARMS

From July 1, Telecom and Vodafone will begin building a rural broadband network, giving 86 per cent of rural homes and businesses the internet speeds their urban counterparts now enjoy.

The Government announced last week it will partner with the telcos in the rural broadband initiative, due to be rolled out over the next six years.

Within that time, 93 per cent of rural schools will also get internet speeds of 100 megabits per second.

The broadband build is expected to cost up to $500 million and will be funded through a $285 million industry levy, with Telecom and Vodafone footing the remainder of the bill.

Telecom will lay 3100km of fibre cables throughout rural New Zealand and Vodafone will build 154 cell towers providing both fixed-wireless and mobile internet.

As well as this, Telecom will upgrade its copper internet lines, giving 30 per cent of rural internet users speeds of up to 20 megabits per second.

Gen-i's David Walker said the scheme will enable more farmers to adopt new types of technology that will change the way they run their operations.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf01 at 25 Oct 2014 16:48:39 Processing Time: 589ms