Fonterra's year-long trial of rough terrain vehicles to replace quad bikes on its farms looks promising as it draws to a close.
Two vehicles are being tested at the 225ha Whareroa Research Farm near Hawera, where 640 cows are being milked this year.
Altogether the company is testing five RTVs on drystock farms in the South Island and four on dairy farms.
The trial, which began before the Government Taskforce on Health and Safety completed its report in April this year, will conclude in December. By then, it will have covered the entire farm season and the busy calving period will be over.
Fonterra joins government-owned Landcorp in reducing quad bike use as concerns increase over their safety. Landcorp has decided not to operate them on its new farms this season and to restrict their use on its other farms.
The Fonterra trial was developed at its Whareroa site near Hawera by health and safety adviser Nicola McCarthy, who says the key to any safety programme is self-preservation.
Fonterra chose the John Deere Gator XUV crossover utility vehicle for the trial after testing three types of RTV in the Waikato. Selection criteria included towing capacity, driver comfort and suitability for negotiating hills.
Greg Smith, farm assistant at Whareroa, said the gator's stability was 100 per cent better than a quad bike.
He also found carrying farm gear on the gator was much easier than on the quad bike because riders usually put items like fencing standards across their knees.
"Any tools for fencing, you just throw them on the back."
Whareroa Research Farm manager Matt Butler said the vehicles were noisy, so staff using them wore ear protection.
"They're a bit slower than a quad bike - they're like a car to drive. Going downhill they tend to freewheel, so you need to keep one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake, otherwise they get away."
The windscreen stopped rain hitting their faces and the canopy kept the vehicle cool in summer. Staff also liked not having to wear a helmet in hot weather.
Putting the vehicle in a low gear when following cows reduced strain on the motor. The gator can tow a tandem trailer full of calves, an irrigator or a fertiliser spreader.
Unlike a quad bike, a gator can carry passengers.
"I quite like it," said Butler. "All round, I'd rather have it than a quad."
Fonterra director of health and safety Nicole Rosie said the company was undertaking the trial because it had been focusing on identifying and eliminating or mitigating critical operational risks that could kill or seriously injure its staff.
After identifying quad bikes as a potential cause of serious harm to its farm staff, the company installed a GPS alarm system that sent an alert if an accident occurred.
"There was a lot of false alarms. It was a system that operated after the event and it was not really reducing the risk," she said.
On the basis of new guidelines for safe quad bike use issued last year by the Department of Labour and the limited success of the alarm system, the company looked at other options.
Rosie said the two-seater, four-wheel-drive, diesel RTV was more stable than a quad bike. It also had a roof, windscreen, tip tray and better towing capacity than a quad bike.
Fonterra had added extras including high-back seats with rear head support, a roll-over safety frame, a rear screen, first aid kit, fire extinguisher, full lighting kits including indicators, LED beacon, towbar and all-terrain tyres.
The canopy sheltered occupants from the rain as well as protecting them from the sun, important in Taranaki which was a high-risk area for melanoma.
"The initial feedback from the trial is positive, but we won't know whether RTVs are more suitable than quad bikes until the end of the trial. We're still cautious at this stage because we're yet to test them at the season peak when there's demand for farmers to be in all sorts of places quickly."
She said quad bikes could be used perfectly safely on many farms but they posed risks to riders using them on hilly country.
A cookie-cutter approach to on-farm health and safety did not work because every farm was different.
"There's a danger in saying that quad bikes are out and the next thing in will be successful. You have to pick the tool that's most suitable for the job you are doing and you have to use it properly."
Whether farmers chose to use quad bikes or RTVs, learning to operate them safely took time.
If the review was favourable, the company would endorse their use on all their farms, she said.
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