Revolution coming – really?

New technologies can be of huge benefit to farmers in their production of safe, high quality food.

New technologies can be of huge benefit to farmers in their production of safe, high quality food.

New technologies can be of huge benefit to farmers in their production of safe, high quality food. And right now, New Zealand farming is on the brink of its next productivity revolution through the on-farm application of new technologies for data gathering and analysis.

By Gary Hartley of GS1 New Zealand

That’s no exaggeration when you grasp the potential in farmers having far greater and more precise information on their livestock and land – and all the variables that drive farm performance. It will radically improve everyday decisions on feed allocation, animal health, water use and all other factors that determine success in production (and, of rising importance, the impact of that on the environment).

The awaited data-derived productivity gains could actually rival those of past revolutions in New Zealand farming – think meat refrigeration, sheep genetics advance and aerial topdressing.

What new technologies? Some are out on farms today: Precision irrigation that automatically monitors and maintains soil moisture levels with minimal run-off of surplus water; sensors that record somatic cell count in the milk of individual cows at every milking; and software that gives the farmer a database of critical variables on their property and analytical tools for truly informed, objective decision making.

There’s another big one – the use of RFID (radio frequency identification) technologies for livestock; the automatic identification of each animal when it is weighed, drenched, moved between farms and so on. Cattle, deer and sheep go through dozens of routine events when unique ID and database recording could add huge potential value to their management.

For New Zealand’s next farming revolution, using RFID in livestock farming is actually a key enabler for many other technologies. A farm management system (FMS) of the kind now on offer from the FarmIQ R&D company, for example, relies heavily on the quality and frequency of data being captured from livestock. Once recorded, it is uploaded to a farm computer: The more data, the more events, the more the FMS becomes a valuable farming tool.

New Zealand does have RFID tagging for cattle and deer now, under the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) scheme launched in 2012. Dairy and cattle and deer must be electronically tagged within six months of birth. Individual NAIT-allocated numbers are recorded into a national database whenever an animal is moved off farm or goes to a processing plant. The purpose is traceability for animal health and biosecurity.

But the revolution will be in New Zealand farming adopting robust and flexible forms of RFID technology that really unlock the potential for data-driven productivity gains beyond the tracing of animals between farms. Such RFID will also link production far more effectively to global supply/ value chains – and that’s another huge area of benefit to farmers. Ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID technology is what the revolution will be founded on and it will tap into a massive global hardware vendor community and the language of the revolution will be globally understood – from farm to consumer.

UHF technologies enable individual animals to be readily identified as they move about in flocks, mobs or herds without the close-up individual reading that low frequency RFID necessitates. The latter works best for cattle and deer as each animal is held in a race or crush. It is much harder and more time-consuming with sheep – and remember that New Zealand still has 30 million of them! At some point, sheep and probably pigs will need to be in the game.

None of these points is lost on forward thinkers in agriculture and the meat industry. UHF RFID has been trialed on cattle, deer and sheep over the past five years: The technology is proven in real-life farming situations.

As a next step, the NZ RFID Pathfinder Group and one of the nation’s more progressive meat exporting companies are cooperating with a South Canterbury sheep farmer to demonstrate the UHF RFID technology in use at large scale, every day.

This farmer has tagged thousands of sheep each with a unique, global identifier (Electronic Product Code – EPC) and the farm’s main shed has been expertly rigged with UHF RFID readers. Other read sites will be set up across the farm where meaningful data can be gathered and fed back to the farm FMS.

The farmer is learning to use his growing database and derive value from it in ways that only he knows how. It’s a full-on commercial exploration of the use of UHF RFID for productivity gain. When needed the technology will, of course, also accommodate NAIT requirements around the movement of sheep beyond the farm gate.

In time, this demonstration farm will yield deep insight on the operational and financial benefits of UHF RFID based on global EPC standards (the global language of the revolution) – insight of value to livestock farmers throughout New Zealand.