Fieldays 2018 (Image: supplied)

Robots, drones, and cows: exploring the agritech at Fieldays

The typical Kiwi farmer is swapping their roll of Number 8 wire for a smartphone and robotics. At Fieldays 2018 Angela Cuming discovered the technology and science solving many of the challenges facing the industry.

It’s 4am on your average Kiwi dairy farm, a time when most farmers are up and out of bed and using up valuable time and energy getting the main herd to the cow shed to start the day’s milking.

But on one South Waikato farm the herd has been brought up to the shed, milked, shifted to the paddock, and break fences set up all before the farmer is out of bed. All the hard work is done from their home with the help of a simple app installed on their phone. The system – which sounds almost too good to be true to cold, tired farmers – is called Halter, and it’s been developed right here in New Zealand, on a farm in Jacinda Ardern’s hometown of Morrinsville.

Craig Piggott, dairy farmer and founder and CEO of Halter, says the system uses audio and vibrationary cues emitted from a solar-powered collar worn around each dairy cow’s neck to move the animals and monitor their health.

“The number one problem on a dairy farm is labour,” Piggott says.This eliminates that problem and makes the job easier for the farmers.’’

The system can also send a farmer an alert that, say, cow number 31 has not been as active as usual and so can be rerouted so the farmer can check on her health. Halter also allows farmers to set up virtual boundaries around waterways, which crucially will keep the cows out of rivers.

“It will literally keep the cows out of the local river,’’ says Piggott. “That’s a huge thing.’’

The Halter system is one example of technology and science being used to deal with the challenges facing farming. The agricultural sector offers a unique opportunity for New Zealand to capitalise on its reputation as one of the world’s four key agritech locations, alongside Silicon Valley, Boston and Amsterdam.

“We are also acknowledged for our ability to solve problems quickly and efficiently in a suitably regulated, yet agile private and public innovation ecosystem,’’ says Hemi Rolleston, Callaghan Innovation’s sectors general manager. “We can capitalise on this and turn out $1 billion of agritech exports into a market of many billions.’’  

Just as a farmer takes his best prized bull to the show, last week the country’s latest and most exciting and agritech gadgets and inventions were put on show at Fieldays, the largest agricultural expo in the southern hemisphere.

There, among the mud and tractor pulls and whitebait fritters and novelty stock sticks, on a purpose-built 113-hectare site at Hamilton’s Mystery Creek, some of the country’s agritech success stories were on display.

Alongside Halter and its system to shift a herd remotely were other innovations like GPS-it, which uses planes and drones to map New Zealand farms to measure pasture growth and health; and Levno, which allows farmers to monitor their fuel, milks and water levels from their smartphone.

Drones could be the solution to quad bike accidents on New Zealand farms (Image: GPS-it).

Palmerston North based Zeddy has developed a range of automatic meal systems for calves, cows, deer and goats. An animal will walk up to the solar-powered feeder and sensors will read the animal’s tag number and distribute the right feed recipe and the right amount of feed.

And C-Dax Ltd has worked with Massey University to create a robot that solves one of the biggest problems on the farm: how to help a time-poor farmer. The squat yellow robot is fully automated and will roll out across a paddock and monitor grass levels and has the potential to be used for weed spraying and soil testing.

Like any other business, the result all farmers are looking for are productivity and yield gains, says Jesse Keith, group manager for national technology networks at Callaghan Innovation. “They want the best return they can get,” he says, “and agritech can do that.’’

One big growth area for high quality tech products in New Zealand is in sectors of the agriculture industry that struggled with a dwindling workforce, he says. Apple and kiwifruit growers have consistently battled to find seasonal workers to literally pick the fruit and robotics could help “fill some of the gaps’’.

“The industries that will adopt technology like robotics are ones that don’t have another solution,’’ he says. “You have to bear in mind that robotics are expensive, there’s a big initial outlay, so it’s not something done lightly’’.

Robotics in New Zealand present an amazing opportunity for growth in the agritech sector, Keith says, with the horticulture and dairy industries standing to gain the most.

‘’What we are going to start to see is these two industries coming to rely on and use technology more and more to grow their businesses and to yield better gains.”

Expect, for example, to see fisheries use robotics to shuck mussels and meatworks use them to cut up big, heavy carcasses. Robotics could also be used in dangerous industries like forestry. “This will be more than just the productivity gain, this will be about how to put your mum or dad or brother or sister or husband or wife in a safer environment.”

But will robots be designed to replace human workers? Keith says no, it’s about filling gaps. “This is not about trading a person for a robot.”

Drones are another type of robotics which we will be used increasingly on farms, not only for efficiency but for safety. “Farmers will be able to send a drone off to the back of the farm to check on a herd of cattle instead of sending a staff member on a quad bike, which often happens in dangerous conditions such as flooding.’’

The agritech sector is now perfectly placed for a period of rapid growth, Keith says, because it’s no longer just farmers tinkering away on inventions in sheds.

“These days we have engineers and scientists and computer coders working together with people from the farming sector, all New Zealand’s best and brightest minds, and they are sharing their research and development skills with each other.”

“Come back to Fieldays in 10 years’ time and I bet that almost every stall, every display, will have some sort of new technology component to it.’’

Zeddy’s portable cow feeder (Image: supplied).

Putting agritech on display at Fieldays is one thing, but will all this new technology become more common on the average Kiwi farm? Keith says it will, mostly because of increasing affordability, but also because farmers are surprisingly open to new gadgets, especially if they make their lives easier.

But possibly the most promising aspect of agritech is its marketing potential, Keith says. Agritech represents a huge opportunity for Kiwi farmers to market their products to overseas customers who are demanding more information about what they’re buying. A farm using technology that, for example, stopped cows from polluting local waterways could have a big headstart over competitors in terms of provenance and sustainability.

And as more customers demand ethically-sourced meat and produce that comes from farms that engage in best environmental practices, farmers will have to prove they did things in the right way, he says.

“Imagine a customer walking into a grocery store in California and knowing the lamb comes from a New Zealand farm that uses the latest technology to ensure the best welfare of its animals. They’d be happy to pay top dollar for that lamb because they can be assured not only of its quality, but that they can buy it with a clear conscience.

“That right there is the unlimited potential that agritech can help New Zealand reach.’’


This content is brought to you by Callaghan Innovation


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