Eyes in the sky to help farmers
Farmers in the future may deploy drones equipped with near-infrared imaging to build a picture of the fertiliser needs of their hill country soils and to measure grass quality and coverage.
Fertiliser co-operative Ravensdown plans to initially use aircraft to scan remote hill country properties, in a partnership project with the Government.
As the project becomes more advanced, drones may be used to do the job.
Chief information officer Mark McAtamney said aircraft would be used during the research, but more cost-effective options such as drones could be the way forward.
"We would have near-infrared cameras on the drones, and the operator or the farmer can take the scan, and Ravensdown would process the scanning and come up with the fertiliser equation.
"That's a five-year research programme, and some outcomes we are expecting to take advantage of quite quickly."
He said the greenness of grass would be scanned and the results matched with soil samples to find out the correlation between the two. Eventually, it was expected that only scanning would be required to provide a picture of soil nutrient levels on hill country.
"During the research, they will soil test these slopes and will do an analysis. We will see if we can find some correlations in the scan with the soil nutrient levels, and therefore be able to use the scanning of the hillside as a replacement [for] physical soil testing.
"Then we will use variable rate technology in aircraft to apply fertiliser."
The Ministry for Primary Industries has approved joint funding between the Government and Ravensdown of $5.13 million for the Transforming Hill Country Farming project.
Advanced forecasting of pasture growth is another development expected to aid farmers.
Farmers can gauge their grass growth with electronic pasture reading technology, but the next step will be technology incorporating weather forecasts and history to tell them their growth forecast over the next one to three weeks.
This will help them decide if they need to apply more nitrogen, bring in supplementary feed, or make hay or silage.
McAtamney said more accurate weather forecasting would assist this development.
Ravensdown has unveiled technology this month in its web-based My Ravensdown account which will supply farmers with a fertiliser plan and recommended spreading rates on farm maps, with colour coding showing the different fertilisers applied.
GPS-based soil tests on the map will tell if nutrient levels are high, adequate or low, and advise farmers of their fertiliser needs.
Existing software tells spreading contractors to apply fertiliser in paddocks at different rates - avoiding unfertile ridges or old riverbeds - and digital mapping of a paddock can be referenced for next year.