Automation company Lely says fully robotic farms are the future for the booming global dairy industry.
Along with being frightening and daunting to most of us, it is also exciting, challenging and now more than ever necessary.
The biggest hurdle will not be the appetite for young farmers and supporting industries to do the job, it will be capital and viability.
As the world population continues to increase, so does the demand for food. The issue is that 80% of available land is already being cultivated and due to water shortage, crop diseases, labour shortage and climate change, productivity is falling worldwide.
The only way forward is more technology -- more precision farming and more precision planning.
Right now in this country you can install a fully automated rotary cow shed capable of milking 800 cows per day. While the robotic arms milk your cows they also gather screeds of data to help with accurate and informed planning. The future is here and being adopted already.
Robotics and automation advancements are huge worldwide. Fully automated and driverless fleets of tractors are in use, and robots armed with highly advanced lasers are able to select and pick fruit, spray crops precisely and measure nutrients and yields.
It would be great to see more innovation and/or adaptation of these advancements used in New Zealand. Look at robotics and agriculture on YouTube and you will be shocked and inspired. What an exciting opportunity for our aspiring robotic engineers.
Effluent and nutrients
What if the problem of nutrient loss was turned into an opportunity? At least in part this is being done in various countries and is now being developed and attempted in NZ.
Digesters are being used in the US and Europe on dairy farms, among other industries and, connected to an effluent system they can provide fertilisers and power. In NZ they sit alongside a newer technology -- a bio-reactor growing algae. This is potentially capable of producing stock feed, fuel and pharmaceuticals, and it finishes the process by releasing clean water. Using this could quickly turn around a dairy farm’s environmental impact while producing useable resources for a farm.
Let’s say a farm is growing 15t DM/ha/year now; how can this get to 30t DM/ha/year by 2050? New grasses are impressive, but I doubt grass alone will get us there; I suggest part of the solution is to be found in cropping.
Already many farms have come a long way and farmers, consultants and scientists are figuring out how to adapt these crops and practices for more profitable farming. It’s not as straightforward or as easy as traditional grass farming but many farmers already understand the benefits of cropping and a lot of work is underway to produce more from the land for a profitable outcome.
The newly unified research farms under Dairy Trust Taranaki are researching a control system alongside a research system in a commercial environment.
Lincoln’s research on beet is bringing an opportunity to lift DM production on farms significantly, as maize has done and continues to do.
Along with advancements in other crops we have a pool of highly talented and motivated young agronomists supporting these new crops. The more this is done the better we’ll get at doing it; as long as it is based on profit the future of cropping is bright.
Feed budgeting and farm modelling
Many feed budgeting tools are available now and are widely used; if regularly referred to and updated these are a powerful tool on a farm. A feed budget is critical to working out profitability onfarm and although it is only a budget it gives guidance and a reference point for farmers to work from.
There are also new programs brilliantly written to model farms and compare changes in systems and payout. These programs are accurate enough to base big decisions on. FarmWise has this tool developed over many years called Optimiser, and with accurate information entered into it this creates a clear view of what is profitable or at least what it would take to be profitable.
For example, if you wanted to know how going OAD early in a low-payout season would compare with your current system, instead of guessing you can model it to see if it will actually work.
All the variables – labour, power, feed cost and cow condition – are taken into account to give clear direction. Every farm is different and these tools can help you plan to get what you want from your farm while helping relieve the stress of the unknown.
In NZ we have for decades been keeping records on our herds. This practice alone is a huge asset to farmers and should not be taken for granted. At our fingertips we can access screeds of current and historical data on our cows and their production. Generation after generation has built on the work of the previous generation.
Now with the power of apps you can record most data inputs on your phone.
Minda Live is a powerful web based tool that helps you make informed decisions and communicate this information among all involved in your business in real time if necessary.
• Grant Leigh is a FarmWise consultant in Taranaki. This article first appeared in Getting the Basics Right 2018 isssue.