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27Jul

Agriculture poised for technology leap

Agriculture poised for technology leap
Words by Richard Rennie

At last year’s New Zealand Precision Agriculture conference key note speaker Raj Khasla, Professor of Precision Agriculture at Colorado State University maintained that technology will do much to lift New Zealand agriculture’s sustainability and productivity.

He spoke as someone from a university priding itself on its sustainability focus, and was confident technology will do much to help right the problems of nitrate losses and water footprint that have dogged agriculture, here and overseas.

He also pointed to the huge boost in computing power that has enabled farming to become automated and sensor based, with the Galaxy S6 smartphone rated billions of times more powerful than the computer that got Apollo 11 to the moon.

ATS/Ruralco Director Gabrielle Thompson can put a Canterbury context around Prof Khasla’s observations, with her first-hand experience owning and operating a 530ha arable and store lamb property at Dorie with her husband Peter and his family.

Gabrielle is a strong proponent within the ATS/Ruralco Board of technology uptake and rural connectivity, championing the co-operative’s latest move to an eCommerce, on-line billing and invoice system for shareholders.

Back on the family property she is witnessing the benefits of new technology in a more obvious fashion as airborne drones regularly patrol the property’s potato crop, equipped with infra-red cameras to identify the presence of the psyllid within plants.

The 530ha farm block incorporates a recently purchased  170ha property. This offers a blank slate opportunity for them to establish a farm equipped with the latest in remote technology innovations.

“I think there has been this perception that maybe agriculture, and farmers are a bit slower to take up this sort of technology.”

“Of course some people will be slower than others to pick up on it, but overall I think there is a generational shift going on in agriculture, where younger farmers are taking over farms from an older generation that maybe was a bit slower to pick up some things.”

“But the new generation of farmers in their 30s are comfortable with the internet and technology, and keen to have it on board. And often they are tasked with running really big operations over hundreds of hectares, so they need technology to play a role to make that task possible, and effective.”

While drones may be the most obvious example of tech uptake in broad-acre cropping country of Canterbury, Gabrielle predicts some of the big gains in productivity and sustainable production will come closer to the ground.

“There are some things we will probably have to change our thinking about, for example like what a tractor is. While people are concerned about large un-manned tractors out in paddocks, we are just as likely to have swarms of small solar powered ‘tractors’ out there, spraying specific weeds, or applying fertiliser in specific amounts.”

Closer to the definition of a robot than the traditional concept of a tractor, these machines could ultimately stay in-situ while the crop grows, tending to specific tasks over its lifetime.

In the Bay of Plenty researchers are only a couple of years away from commercialising an automated kiwifruit robot that will alternate between picking, pruning and spraying depending upon the time of year, operating 24/7 in a sector struggling to find enough staff for  burgeoning crop volumes.

“I think the outcome of such technology is we will have smaller machines that consolidate the soil less, with less spray residues because only a specific weed is targeted, and lower nutrient losses because fertiliser will be applied in a more precise fashion.”

She sees this technology being responsible for the next leap in agricultural productivity gains, the last achieved after World War 2 through the use of sprays and nitrogen fertilisers.

More passive background technology is already in play on their property, with the latest generation of soil moisture probes providing real time data on water loss on their property.

“These allowed us to go on a holiday this summer for the first time and not have to be at home irrigating. We could log in and observe where the moisture was being lost, and make some tactical decisions about where we would send the centre pivot next.”

While they had to have a family member move the equipment, the next centre pivot they install will also be capable of being moved remotely to where it needs to be.

Gabrielle has welcomed New Zealand’s steps into space through Rocket Lab’s success, and sees huge potential for farmers seeking satellites to perform specific tasks.

“The cost of getting small satellites up in space is a lot less, and we are now moving to the point you can get regular updates via satellite on farm pasture cover and crop performance for example.”

As consolidation in Canterbury drives farms to be bigger, such measurement technology will save valuable man hours over manually logging grass growth and crop performance.

“It is a very exciting time, the growth we can expect will be exponential, and we are only at the bottom of the curve right now.”

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