Manawatu dairy farmer Andrew Hoggard has a vision: He wants technology being tested to explore the surface of Mars to help manage his farm.
He is thinking drones and believes they - or unmanned farm vehicles - may be the next step in moving his 300-hectare holding at Kiwitea north of Fielding further into the digital world.
Hoggard's thoughts have been piqued by news NASA is testing a helicopter drone fitted with wide-angle cameras to assist in the exploration of the Red Planet's surface on the planned 2020 Mars rover mission.
"If they are looking at using drones on Mars, surely we can do the same on a farm in New Zealand," he says. "I would love to have that technology."
Hoggard, also the national dairy chairperson of Federated Farmers, has already made significant progress in his goal to create a cutting-edge, networked farm operation and is one of a growing number of New Zealand farmers considering or already using drones.
He believes they will, along with unmanned vehicles, help transform farm management and monitoring systems - making them more efficient and effective.
On Mars, a drone is likely to be used to find routes for the robotic Mars exploration rover to take across the Martian landscape and the best places for it to carry out scientific exploration; on Hoggard's farm it will have simpler tasks like stock, pasture and water monitoring or measurement of paddock feed levels.
"At present if we want to know how much grass we have for example, we have a machine we tow on the back of a bike. This takes one person an entire day to go around the farm to get these readings," says Hoggard.
"Most days I would rack up to 10-15km going back and forth from the cowshed and the paddocks. It is often slow progress, it's not like hopping in the car and driving a quick 10km into town, so it all takes time."
"With a drone or unmanned vehicle we could simply set it to a programme, walk away and get on with something else.
Data transmitted by a drone would also help Hoggard assess fertiliser spreading needs and the state of dry matter per hectare (the feed needed by a cow), enabling him to quickly move his herd to the most plentiful paddocks.
He has only one concern: "The Manawatu is quite famous for its westerly wind and I'm not sure how a drone would handle that."
Although Hoggard is still researching drones and unmanned vehicles, his farm operation is already firmly in digital mode. He has established a website which holds all the information his staff of three need to carry out their jobs - with or without him.
Tabs with information and guidelines on cowshed and farm operations (these include photographs and videos with step-by-step instructions on individual tasks), compliance standards and resources are but a click away, along with worklists for each of his staff detailing the daily jobs needing to be undertaken.
Accessible from a WiFi hotspot in the cowshed, Hoggard plans to establish other hotspots around the farm for data collection and remote control.
The site features a control panel enabling Hoggard to remotely monitor key operational functions on the farm. So far this has extended only to real-time monitoring of the 21,000 litre-capacity milk vat refrigeration unit, but will be extended to other areas such as the electric fencing system and water network.
"The milk sits in the vat for 24 to 48 hours and it is important for us to keep the temperature at 4 degrees centigrade. If it is too high or too low, it won't be picked up and has to be dumped.
"Recently we had a situation where the temperature went down to zero and froze the milk. We had to dump 1000 litres. If we'd had the control system in place, it would have saved me a lot of grief.
"So this control system keeps us on top of a situation before it becomes a huge problem - something we can access from anywhere at any time.
"With fencing, for example, this will alert us to a power outage in a paddock - meaning we can get there to fix the problem quickly before the cows bust through the fence."
Hoggard says he was encouraged to develop the website because his role with Federated Farmers keeps him away from the farm for all but two days of the week. With 220 of the farm's 300 hectares used for pasture and 540 cows in the herd, his farm is large by dairy standards (the average herd is 400 cows, the average farm size 144 hectares).
"So I did a brain-dump of everything in my head. I shot the videos myself doing the various tasks, then uploaded them to Youtube before embedding them on to the website. Now the cowshed staff can easily tick off each step as they go."
"I am very into DIY and it has been enjoyable doing a lot of this myself."
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