Technology investment is paying off for New Zealand's dairy farmers. In the past year the industry produced 21.2 billion litres of milk containing 1.88 billion kilograms of milk solids. That's up 2.4 per cent on the previous season.

We're producing more milk with fewer cows. The total cow population decreased 0.9 per cent on the previous year. Cow efficiency is improving at a clip.

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Wayne McNee, CEO of LIC, says some of the growth in milk production has come from farmers learning to do more with less. He says we are world leaders in precision farming. We're also seeing the benefits of the same technology revolution that has changed almost every other aspect of our lives.

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One of the latest technologies helping farmers improve yields is something McNee describes as "Fitbit for cows", in effect a wearable computer.

"Fitbit for cows is a relatively new technology in New Zealand. It's something that has been used a bit overseas. It's starting to become more popular in New Zealand as a way of monitoring cow performance and cow health. The technology is getting more sophisticated."

He says at first it was a struggle to adopt the technology in New Zealand. "Our cows walk around a lot more than cows overseas who often live in barns or similar systems.

"Here they are mainly free range. And they are out in all types of weather. That meant it took time to get the technology to work here, but that's been cracked now."

McNee says LIC is starting to see farmers use the technology. They are also investigating how they will use it and link it into existing systems.

Fitbit for cows is an internet of Things (IoT) application, essentially a way of embedding internet connectivity into everyday objects. Often there are measuring sensors that collect data then send it to the cloud (remote data centres) for processing.

McNee says there are systems that can record all the data from the device when the cow enters the milking shed. It uploads the data in the cloud. Another approach is to collect data as the animals move around the farm.

He says the technology is getting better all the time. "It can measure the health of the animal and its movements. If it's unwell, it will move differently, and this is picked up. Or if the cow is on heat, which means it is ready to be inseminated."

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Wayne McNee, CEO of LIC
Wayne McNee, CEO of LIC

Cows already have radio frequency ear tags that can identify the animals as they move into the shed. This is mandated by the National Animal Identification and Tracing scheme. However, McNee says the Fitbit technology takes things to the next level: "It's a little more expensive than a human Fitbit because these devices need to work in adverse conditions.

They get bashed around, rub up against things, get rained on and get exposed to the sun. They have longer lasting batteries; typically they last three to six years. Farmers are increasingly finding them to be a good investment."

LIC is investigating how it can link the product to its systems. It is also considering selling the devices, but McNee says the immediate goal is using the data to gather information about cow performance and potentially link it into the LIC genetic improvement programme.

"We already have the milking information, but if we have more data about how different cows perform, we can identify matters such as why some cows are healthier than others and can we breed for that," he says.

One possible development is that eventually cows won't need to go into the shed or walk past monitoring points for their data to be collected. He says they could be connected full time to the cellular phone network. There is work going on with other communications technologies. Until now the challenges around battery life have been a barrier but newer networks, including 5G, have the potential to change that.

All this work is part of LIC's remit to develop what McNee calls "the cow of the future". He says the main focus is on the environmental impact of dairy cows. The idea is to breed animals that create less methane and less nitrate for each kilo of milk solid they produce.

McNee says methane and nitrates are facts of life in dairy: "You're not going to be able to remove them completely because of the way the animals process grass. We can make them more efficient and minimise the impact.

"We're already making progress. Cows are getting more efficient as the production numbers show. The big research projects we have are working on genomics. We have a full genome map of cows and bulls. We can then identify the traits that have an impact on their future health and their environmental impact."

He thinks the number of cows in New Zealand has peaked and will now decline. "I doubt we will see more. In fact we'll have fewer cows, but better ones," he says.

LIC is working with government agencies and with Dairy Research on developing more efficient animals.

McNee says though they've made good progress, there is still plenty of room for improvement:

"We haven't anywhere near reached the end of efficiency yet. We're continuing to see increasing rates of genetic gain from traditional breeding programmes. Now with genomics we can go further.

"We're not using any form of genetic modification. It's just about identifying the desirable traits on a cow and breeding for them. We can't see an end to the progress at the moment, which is good news for the New Zealand dairying sector."

One area of research is looking at how animals in places like South America deal with higher temperatures than we tend to find in New Zealand.

LIC is investigating whether the breeds used in South America can be cross-bred with local cows. This could be important for the long-term health of the industry if temperatures continue to rise. LIC is looking at this both for the New Zealand market and, potentially, to export animals.