Insights from big data are key to New Zealand farming keeping its global edge, writes Wayne McNee.

Big data. It's a term that gets thrown around a lot now days but it's one that is going to be critical to the future success of New Zealand farming.

Today in New Zealand we're now probably at "peak cow".

If dairy farming is going to continue to drive our economy in the way it has for decades (which it must) we're going to have to farm differently. We're going to have to farm smarter.

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Farmers are rightly voicing concern about what this shift will mean and how they will do it. We don't have all the answers today but what we do know is that big data will be at the heart of it.

The next era of farming starts with taking full advantage of data. We need a full ecosystem of information and analytics to support our farmers shift from volume to value. We need to be able to provide insights to farmers, not just pages and pages of reports.

Farming throughout history has been based on instinct and experience. It's now our job to interpret data and serve insights up at the right time to help farmers with decision making on farm.

We know that access to insights will make farmers' lives easier and enable informed decisions, driving the next wave of productivity and sustainability improvements. Agritech companies around the world are taking notice and on-farm tech innovation is moving quickly, particularly as the cost of data capture and analysis reduces.

So as the global data arms race heats up, how is New Zealand's dairy farming sector placed?

Well the good news is there's already a huge influx of data being produced from a wide range of technologies used on farms, including traditional methods like herd testing and animal recording, more recently from in shed cameras and sensors, and even more recently from satellites.

Kiwi farmers are advanced in their use of technology.

Some are using animal wearables — think fitbits for cows — and technology to manage irrigation systems and measure animal performance.

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We've made a good start but we need to do more and we need to make smarter use of the data we collect. It's what we do with the data we capture that will really make the difference.

To help support this shift to data-driven farming, we need better connectivity in rural areas, and more automated systems that collect data and make it easy for time-poor farmers.

Agrigate, which powers a dashboard combining data from Fonterra, LIC, Ravensdown, Figured and others is one example of collaboration across our industry on data. But there's plenty more opportunities for us to work together and share data to allow better integration across systems.

A shift in mindset is also needed.

At LIC, for more than 100 years we've helped give Kiwi farmers a competitive edge through thinking as a herd improvement company, but we know that if we're going to continue to do that for another 100 years we're going to going to have to think almost as much about big data as we do about herd improvement.

Other primary sector companies will need to do the same.

LIC alone holds more than 1 billion records of cow data showing information on inseminations, animal health, genomics and much more.

It's exciting to think how better and richer use of this lake of data will help develop insights that guide better decision making on farm.

In our cutting-edge genomics work, big data is allowing us to supercharge the rate of genetic gain.

Genomic data is integral to the future of dairy cattle herd improvement with the ability to assess an animal's genetic merit before physical information has been collected.

The journey to big data and serving up real time insights to help farmers is not an easy one though. It requires significant and continuous investment in R&D, a clear digital strategy, and ongoing investment in technology and people by the sector to ensure we have good quality data, and the right capability to analyse it.

Meeting the challenges of data-driven agriculture will require leadership and boldness from the sector. It will at times be hard work but with the risk of disruption looming large over farming it is crucial for us as an agricultural nation to access and organise data with speed and scale.

Globally we are confronted by a global arms race for big data.

If New Zealand is to continue to enjoy the prosperity and growth we have for decades from farming, it's vital we don't lag behind.

We've made a good start but there is so much more to do.

Wayne McNee is CEO of LIC.