Waikato farmer spearheads wireless farming for the future of dairying
Tony Walters is farming's ambassador of technology, writes Gerald Piddock.
Dairy farmers could soon be using wireless technology as proof that they are operating an environmentally sustainable operation.
The wireless connection could help sell the New Zealand story to overseas customers resulting in better prices for their products in the market. For farmers, that would mean they get paid better for their milk.
Tony Walters is convinced the day will come soon when this works and is piloting the technology on his 95 hectare dairy farm at Waiuku in North Waikato.
"We supply milk for a world market and if we can prove that we are farming sustainably and correctly for the environment and we can prove we are doing it through technology, I would like to see a better payout because of that."
Wireless sensors providing evidence that farmers were taking care of the environment could allow Fonterra to push for a similar premium that organic farmers receive, says Walters, a supplier for the giant co-operative.
It could also help attract the next generation of employees into careers in agriculture.
"As a farmer and as an employer, we are getting older and we have to encourage a new generation into farming and the new generation are technology savvy."
Walters was the first farmer to use Spark's 4G network and uses wireless sensors placed around his farm to monitor everything from the milk temperature in the vat, whether his yard gate is open, wind speed, his water intake, air temperatures, rainfall, soil temperature and soil moisture levels.
The sensors have enable him to make better farming decisions.
He made a $12,500 investment in technology four years ago to monitor his farm's environmental footprint. The sensor technology he is trialling now with Fonterra and Spark costs has cost about $3500.
The biggest benefit he received was the quality of information he now has at his disposal on his tablet. this allows him to make better decisions on his farm around environmental management and feeding his cows.
The farm milks 265 cows on a split calving system. Like most farmers, he and wife Marlene have struggled with the payout dropping, but the technology has enabled him to make more informed decisions around the farm business to cope with its effects.
They have invested in a barn system to help protect them from seasonal extremes. The barn system has helped him grow his milk production from 400 kilograms of milksolids a cow to 500kg by better protecting his pastures and using the sensor information.
Previously, it cost Walters about 15 kilograms of dry matter per cow to produce a kilogram of milksolids. Now, he is able to more accurately know what he is feeding his cows and has dropped his dry matter output from 15kg of dry matter to 12.5kg in order to produce one kilogram of milksolids.
He estimates he was able to drop that further to 10-11kg of dry matter last season, saving him about $15,000 in feed costs.
"We have been able to conserve food but produce the same amount. There have been a number of factors that have done that, but it's about understanding our business better and having information to make decisions on."
It has also made him a more environmentally sustainable farmer. Cow waste is captured in the barn using woodchips which is then made into compost. Effluent from the cow shed goes into an effluent system which eventually spread over 80 per cent of his farm at a low application rate.
By composting his woodchips and spreading them back onto the farm, he is applying about $20,000 of nutrients back onto the farm.
These sorts of gains see him upbeat about higher milk prices being able to be achieved from sustainable farming.
"We are really confident that we are protecting the environment and lets see in the future if we can get a higher price for it."
The paperwork around compliance issues was the biggest hassle for farmers and that workload was only going to increase. Simplifying that process for family farmers was critical, he says.
"As farmers we work seven days a week, 14-16 hours a day at the moment and the last thing we want to do when we get home at night is sit down and enter information for regulatory purposes."
Every morning Walters receives text messages from a company which take his soil monitoring data and turns it into a recommendation of when and where to irrigate his effluent.
He receives a monthly report outlining the days he has irrigated effluent which he can then use to show to the Waikato Regional Council during a compliance inspection.
The data-crunching helps him to judge the best time to apply fertiliser to paddocks.
Walters also uses an electronic cloud-based farm diary complete with mapping where he records daily farm tasks and compliance monitoring. If he is travelling he can still keep an eye on the farm.
Furthermore, if Fonterra wanted to audit him, he can send the information to the co-operative without the need for a face-to-face visit.
His farm consultant has access to the system and can view what Walters has done before he pays a visit to the farm. If there is a question about a specific paddock, Walters can hit a button and bring up its history.
"Instead of going back to a diary we've got that always in the cloud."
Temperature sensor technology sends information to his tablet which he can view at any time. He can track milk entering the plate cooler just over 30 degrees Celsius and leaving it after refrigeration at 12 degrees.
Information he receives is fitted with alerts, so he instantly knows if there is mechanical failure or human error which might increase the milk temperature.
Walters sees even greater potential for the technology if other farmers climb on board. New Zealand's cellphone towers can process up to 100,000 sensors and if all of the dairy farms in his district used the technology, it could collectively monitor milk quality and temperatures in the vat on those farms.
If a sensor showed the milk temperature was too high and alerted a farmer, tankers could avoid collecting that milk, which would save the co-operative money.
"Technology is getting easier, it's getting better and the more people that are using it, the cheaper it's going to get and the better level of service we're going to get."
Technology was going to explode over the next few years and the challenge for agriculture was discovering what systems worked best for it. Walters says he is happy to be the guinea pig for that.
He believes companies come to him because of his practical background, but it has not been without the occasional mishap. He once trialled a meal feeder, which caught fire in the cow shed.
"Not all trials go well, but the outcome from it is that you hope that you go through a bit of pain through the inconvenience of trialling stuff for the benefit of everyone."
Walters is now trialling new electronic ear tags that have a range of up to 300 metres, a much greater range than the current NAIT tags which are read using either a wand or on a fixed panel.
The tags allowed him to track where his cows are on the farm and also tell him if a cow is lame, or cycling. It will give him better tools to make decisions.
The rural sector's access to technology has traditionally been poor but companies will invest in the rural sector to give farmers better access if they know that a specific piece of technology will be used, he says.
"What Fonterra is doing in the end is going to help all rural people because it's going to allow those telecommunications companies to invest in the rural sector."
Another challenge was making more products cross compatible with each other, he says.
"Everyone has gone off in their own direction and done things and this is why we have so many apps on our devices because nothing is talking and until we get things talking and have one platform you can manage your farm business from that would be an advantage."
For Walters, the next big farm project is a new cowshed to replace their old herringbone when the financial climate permits.
Knowing what he does now, he will invest in technology in the shed that supports his ability to monitor his cows and get a return on his investment through extra production either through increasing his production through his existing herd or lifting cow numbers.
"If we have to spend $1 million on a new cow shed, if I don't invest into technology, all that $1 million it's going to do is get us home half an hour early at the end of the day."
Fonterra says it will take what they are learning from Walters' farm and see how it can best benefit the wider co-operative.
Technology was being adopted at a rapid rate and while it was not Fonterra's objective to tell farmers how to farm, it saw its role in harnessing and showcasing the best technology, Fonterra general manager of operations and farmer services Evelyn Seewald says.
It was, however, still reliant on good internet connectivity and while the government's rural broadband initiative had certainly helped, it was still a challenge in many areas. The challenge ahead was how to use Fonterra's co-operative strength so other farmers could benefit from this technology, she says.
"Tony's really leading the way as an ambassador in this."
It was however still reliant on good internet connectivity and while the government's rural broadband initiative had certainly helped, it was still a challenge in many areas.