High-tech sheep and beef property

August 2008
After success with an Innovation dairy farm at Walton, Innovation Waikato were commissioned by NZTE in 2006 to establish plans for an integrated farm management system for sheep, beef and deer farms.

Innovation Waikato was involved, along with a number of other farm service providers, in setting up a dairy farm with all the latest whiz bang technology. The property was run by the Bennetts and we visited this farm at the beginning of series two of Rural Delivery.

It had automatic drafting gates and scales EID and a range of flash technology linking the farm and the farmer.

Following on from that, roughly the same team has put together something similar for a sheep beef property. Loosely their goals are the same

To encourage New Zealand agri-tech industry partners to collaborate to develop integrated farm management systems that are straightforward to set up and usable for farmers; and

To demonstrate to farmers that it is possible to install and use technology to add significant profit to the bottom line of farming, and in particular that traceability technologies can be productivity tools rather than a compliance burden.

They want Farm Management Systems (IFMS) to be based around the productivity and marketing opportunities offered by the integration of electronic technologies into the day to day farming process.

The whole idea is to prove that they are feasible and - most importantly - offer a return on investment.

There are two demonstration farms (one North Island, one South Island) .

On each of the farms, their team select and implement technologies that will add to the financial bottom line. They used discussion groups with farmers around New Zealand, as well as meetings with meat processing companies, to identify key areas:

- Improve and measure pasture availability and quality

- Supply animals at optimum schedule weights

- Proactively manage drenching and animal health

- Utilise traceability to improve genetic potential

The Te Awamutu property is run by John Brier. It is around 550 ha. He runs sheep and beef and some dairy grazers. He has had some deer but not at the moment. Stock numbers are roughly: 2800 ewes, 150 R2 dairy bulls, 200 R1s, 50 beef heifers.

The project started in 2006 and theyve been introducing technology onto Johns farm for the last 18 months.

The last summer period has been a particularly testing time for all farmers in the Waikato and it has been interesting to see if any of the technologies at play have been useful. The other issue is low lamb prices, which have again put the capital cost of some of the technologies and the likely payback time in a commercial setting under the microscope.

Andrew Cooke, Rezare Systems Ltd, says the question is we can do it technically but how much value are you adding ?

From Johns point of view theres potentially a number of disadvantages to being one of the demonstration farms just like the monitor farm system you have a number of experts wandering around poking into farm practise and accounts. What is different here is that their aim is to let you use leading technology without having to pay for it.

Theres a heap of unpaid help , support and advice - not to mention the involvement of top industry people who want to make it work.

John is involved with the steering committee that plans the project and is involved in risk management. Hes got to sign up to the programme as does his staff. Allowing visitors on farm to have a squizz, and finally let people see his accounts.

Basically these are very flash drafting gates. All the ewes have an ID tag. The gates draft according to a range of criteria that can be programmed. There's also a voice command override.

RFID is obviously useful in a stud setting or with dairy cows but theres a question mark over its usefulness in a commercial sheep and beef setting. Andrew Cooke of Resare says that John has been involved with Rissington Breedline on a programme of lamb supply which includes traceability.

Primera rams go to Johns ewes. John has to get those lambs up to 17kg by a certain date. He says theres pressure, especially in a hard season, to get that last 2kg onto the lambs.

Those lambs are marketed to Marks & Spencer. Theres a question or two around how those lambs are traced back to farm of origin. All the technology involved with this hasnt been rolled out.

This is a computer based farm modelling tool. It is used to predict pasture covers on a month by month and annualised level. Its purpose is to help farmers make strategic decisions.

Whats involved is pasture walks which are then fed into the computer model. Presumably there is long term data from previous seasons in here as well. Andrew says this was a valuable tool during the recent drought. He says John plugged in his pasture information and his stock plans and Farm Max came back and said - you haven't unloaded enough stock - you need to get rid of some more.

This is an AgResearch product which inputs NIWA data going back years and helps farmers come up with a longer / broader picture of climate and pasture growth. It is also useful in creating a risk profile.

This is a system that has already been trialled with AgResearch on some Landcorp farms.

Basically it is grazing ewes and lambs together pre-weaning. By removal of the lower wire the lambs can get access to pasture that the ewes cant reach.

It seems to have worked well with lambs getting good growth.

John says they are planning to implement that system this year.

Broadband is in use on the farm with a rural link and then a repeater on the hill. This enables John to use his PDA on the farm and bounce the information back to the home computer.

Weather Station. Theres plans to install one of these on farm in the next little while to add to data gathering.

John says the process is much longer than he thought. He says gains can be made a lot more quickly in a dairy farm setting. He says cows are coming in twice a day which means things can be tried and tested a lot more easily and regularly. He makes the point that it isn't quite so easy to do on a sheep and beef property.