On deck with tech

These Farmlands shareholders are embracing innovation.

Whatever task you’re doing on-farm, there’s most likely some type of technology you’re using that is making that task easier. Technology in the agricultural sector has come a long way and continues to grow and develop in leaps and bounds every year. New Zealand’s innovators continue to find new ways to make day to day life on-farm easier and farmers are quick to make sure they are utilising the technology to its full potential.

For Farmlands shareholder Fraser McKnight, using technology on his farm at Ida Valley has not only made farm management a lot easier, it has improved profitability as well. Fraser’s family farm, Rough Ridge, is a 900 hectare sheep and beef farm, with 60 percent of the farm being on hill that rises from 480 metres to 940 metres above sea level. The farm carries 3,500 Polworth ewes and 70 cattle and they hope that with a bit of luck they will increase that over the next few years.

Fraser’s grandfather, Irv, purchased Rough Ridge in 1954 and Fraser is the third generation of the family to run the farm. “I came back to the farm in around 2005 and I’ve been here ever since,” he says. Fraser now runs the farm in a 50/50 partnership with his parents, Murray and Sharon. A fitter and welder by trade, making the most of technology on-farm is something that came naturally to Fraser – and it is EID technology in particular that has made their business run a lot more smoothly.

“We were part of the ‘Lucerne for Lambs’ project and so with that we started doing the odd one just to keep track of them – it all just started from there really,” Fraser says. The Lucerne for Lambs project, conducted by Beef + Lamb New Zealand and the Sustainable Farming Fund, investigated the application of improved lucerne and irrigation water management on Central Otago farms. The objective of the research conducted at Rough Ridge farm was to demonstrate the stocking rate, growth rates and ewe condition of ewes and lambs grazing lucerne or perennial pasture from tailing to weaning.

“So it got started with them to monitor the lambs on the lucerne and how well they were doing and all that and then we just sort of carried it on from there. We thought it would be a lot easier to manage everything with EIDs.

We’re fully up and running now – we’ve just been slowly putting them in each year – everything now has EID.” Fraser says that EID makes it a lot easier to manage stock, especially around pre-lamb. “We put our terminals to a certain mob and it’s just a lot easier to manage, you can just mix them all up and then run them through and take out your terminals and lamb them all separately.”

Using EID has improved their profitability as well. “We can do our wool weights when we shear our hoggets and we can cull our hoggets on wool weight. At this stage we’re getting heavier wool weights – I’d say we could put that down to EID.” Rough Ridge produces fine wool, with the majority contracted to Merino New Zealand.

“We can manage our ewes a lot better because we body condition score them as well and we keep track of them and priority feed them. So that’s lifted our lambing percentage from 127 to 142 last year. We’re hoping to get to 150 percent this year. It’s just made general farm management a lot easier. We also use the EID system to determine which ram breed is more suitable to put across our Polworth ewes – which ones grow faster and yield better on different types of pasture – this enables us to get lambs off the place quicker for a more profitable return. We got 76 percent lambs away to the works on first draft off their mothers. In the future this should help us determine which type of pasture to plant, so we can get our lambs away sooner – the best and most profitable lamb is always off their mothers.” Fraser says EID is great for traceability on the farm as well. “We can trace our twin bearing ewes right through their whole lives basically. So we can keep those twin bearing ewes and monitor them and lift our lambing percentage.”

They also upload a lot of their information to FarmIQ. “That’s for ease of management. You just load all the information on and you can work out your best paddocks for lambing and all that sort of stuff. It’s another tool that helps us.”

The McKnights also use other technology on-farm to help make life easier, including self-regulating feeders that the sheep eat nuts or grain out of. “We’ve got them up the hill for our ewes – it’s a big bin that holds about 3 tonne of grain and we set how much we want them to eat per day – whether its 90 or 100 grams in spring or 200 during winter – and they self-feed off that. We got them originally for when we had the droughts and we’ve used them ever since. The sheep come off the hill in great order,” Fraser says.

In regards to further technology to be implemented at Rough Ridge, Fraser explains that they currently have a fixed irrigation system that they are hoping to upgrade. “They’re coming out with new technology now so that we can run it from our phones – change where you irrigate and everything like that.”

The McKnights have seen first-hand what technology can do for farm management and profitability and will continue to welcome further innovation at Rough Ridge.

 


 

New Zealand farmers have a strong history of innovation, even if it’s a novel new use for that handy no.8 wire. But not every farmer manages to win a Fieldays Innovation Award, especially in beekeeping, which has seen little innovation for nearly 140 years.

Grant Engel, a Farmlands shareholder in Kerikeri, invented his mobile honey harvester as a tool to revolutionise the traditional honey extraction process. Rather than take honey boxes to the factory for processing, the honey harvester allows the beekeeper to collect honey directly at the hive site in food grade pails.

“You can see exactly how much honey a particular hive has produced, check the quality and then take just the pails home. A courier then picks them up and takes them to the factory for processing. So my goal was to take just the honey, not the whole honey boxes,” Grant says.

Grant was raised on a dairy farm in the Wairarapa in a family that valued ideas and innovation.

“As a teenager I looked forward to reading about the Mystery Creek Fieldays innovations in the paper and Dad gave me free rein in his workshop to try and put into practice all the ideas I dreamed up,” he explains. “Like any farmer faced with a problem, I just think that you can always find a way to fix it.”

Grant and his wife Kim had been dairy farming themselves for 10 years before tapping in to the lucrative market for New Zealand honey. They began keeping bees on their farm as an extra revenue stream but Grant could never get his head around the extraction process.

“It seemed crazy to me that in 2013 we still had to take our honey boxes to the factory to get the honey extracted. As dairy farmers, we likened it to taking your cows to the milk factory every day to have the milk extracted!”

Motivated by a need for convenience and practicality, Grant emerged from his shed with the honey harvester. While trialling the initial prototype, more benefits became obvious. With cleaner frames and fewer opportunities for cross contamination between hives, incidence of disease dropped significantly. No lifting heavy honey boxes meant no aches and pains and he could handpick frames for harvesting to control the quality of honey, especially useful when Manuka was flowering.

While there has been much interest in the prices fetched for Manuka, Grant says many other food sources are overlooked, often because landowners think the site is difficult to access. Back blocks with gorse offer an excellent source of protein for bees and with much of New Zealand pastures being understocked for clover pollination, a healthy bee population can turn this around. “The beauty of the honey harvester is you can keep hives anywhere, even in remote areas,” Grant says. “We’ve got farmers who have hives in places only accessible by boat or where the easiest access is by helicopter.

The important thing is once our hives are in place, they don’t need to be moved. It’s only the beekeeper who goes in and honey that comes out.”

Kim takes care of logistics once the honey comes in and points out that the honey harvester is also changing the traditional service offered to beekeepers and landowners.

“Collecting honey in food pails means we’ve changed the transport phase as well. In the same way a milk tanker collects milk from your farm, a courier picks up your pails and takes them to the factory. The difference is our pails are fully traceable, so we know which honey has come from which beekeeper.”

The honey harvester won the Fieldays Innovation Launch NZ Award in 2013 and then backed it up in 2014 as a finalist in the New Zealand Innovation Awards. These successes gave Grant and Kim the confidence to focus on developing their beekeeping business around the mobile honey harvester, having it patented and MPI certified. Revolutionary Beekeeping Limited is into its third year with a steadily growing number of commercial beekeeping operations and landowners around the country using the honey harvester and their “Revbee” collection by courier system.

Supported by a team of 10 at Revbee, their goal now is to get more landowners involved, especially commercial beekeepers and continue innovating the industry.

“Ultimately, we want more beehive sites using this system throughout the country,” Grant says. “We encourage all landowners to get involved. It’s not just about getting extra revenue from your land – we really want to change the industry as a whole for the better. New Zealand has done it with the dairy industry and we think New Zealand can lead the way with beekeeping as well.”