Chance conversation leads to birth of "Spikey" - a device which may greatly help NZ waterways.

It was an unlikely beginning – two men talking about, of all things, urine.

Specifically, cow urine. From the conversation (and years of development down the track) has come "Spikey" – a device which may become a major weapon in the fight against nitrate leaching into New Zealand waterways.

Pastoral Robotics co-founder Geoff Bates doesn't like to be seen to be claiming too much – and scientific trials have yet to confirm the claims – but he and co-founder Bert Quin felt Spikey was a "game changer" for New Zealand's waterways and farmers which can cut nitrate leaching in this country by 50 per cent – or more.

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If the trials and scientific peer reviews happening right now confirm Spikey (so called because of the rows of spiked discs towed behind a tractor) as a credible tool, it could become a familiar sight on farms up and down the land – and that conversation about cow urine a few years back could be a significant moment in the battle for improved water quality.

"It was quite funny, really, Bert [now retired from the Pastoral Robotics business] and I met at a powhiri for his sister Mary," says Bates. Mary Quin, voted as one of two New Zealanders Of The Year by the New Zealand Herald in 2014, was then CEO of Callaghan Innovation, for whom Bates worked at that stage.

Bates (who also invented the Dung Buster for cleaning up milking yards, which he says is used by about 30 per cent of dairy farmers) was developing a proposal for the automatic handling of dairy shed waste, saving up to 40 per cent of water and effluent produced by cow sheds; Quin was researching a device fitted to cows to treat urine patches automatically – activated by the cow raising its tail.

Here's how Spikey works: The rows of spiked discs make contact with the surface soil when Spikey is towed over a farm paddock. The spikes detect recent urine patches with a high degree of accuracy by identifying electrical conductivity changes in the soil.

Picture / Supplied
Picture / Supplied

Spikey then treats the urine with an environmentally safe mix of chemicals already widely used in agriculture. One of the components keeps the urea in the urine in this form for a vital few extra days, enabling it to make each urine patch bigger. More of the nitrate formed from the urea is used by the grass (a win for the farmer) and less is left to leach into our waterways (a win for the environment).

However, the route to general acceptance of such a product is always long – and Bates and Quin have spent years developing it and testing it to demonstrate its nitrate-reducing qualities. Bates says one group of four farms have been trialling it for two years, with excellent results, and he says the science behind the product will be validated by a series of peer reviews due by the end of the year.

That kind of endorsement is needed if Spikey is to be adopted by those at the sharp end of the water quality challenge – not just farmers but regional councils and other stakeholders.

It is not a cheap solution but Bates says Spikey's ability to grow more grass for the farmer – and more grass equals more money, especially for the dairy farmer – will enable farmers to make a profit.

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Bates claims farmers will adopt Spikey if that profit is proven; he says some farmers will opt for plantain as a tool against leaching but adds that the two are complementary: "You can do both."

Plantain, the herb which can be planted in dairy pastures, affects a cow's diet and is also the subject of trials to demonstrate it can also significantly reduce the amount of nitrate leaching into New Zealand's waterways.

Spikey has an 8m "wingspan", is easily attached to a tractor or farm vehicle and can be quickly towed around paddocks which have accommodated the herd. Because it treats only recent urine patches, only a small percentage of pasture has to be sprayed – a big saving in chemicals.

"What New Zealand needs is a whole new technology which counters the problem and allows farmers to get on with running their business," says Bates.

Pastoral Robotics are talking to a big farming group in the South Island about use of Spikey and, in another year, Bates thinks the company might be ready in about a year for roll-out after the scientific proof and peer reviews are completed – and says they are already talking to several large companies interested in funding the roll-out.

He says regional councils and farm contracting businesses will be the most likely customers ( they can hire out Spikey to individual farmers), along with big farming groups.

And, if it does indeed come to pass that nitrate leaching levels are positively affected by the advent of Spikey, there will be a lot of people glad that two men got together by chance to discuss urine.

*DairyNZ do not necessarily endorse products such as this but news of such developments are important as they illustrate some of the work being done to improve New Zealand's water quality.