Mapping future farming
Hamish McNicol reports on making difficult farming discussions easy with technology and data.
Telling a dairy farmer they had to change their farm layout or add some fencing was not always an easy conversation to have.
But moving data sets from tables and numbers to images and maps is one way technology has helped farmers ‘‘push the boat out’’ on improving farm efficiencies, and mitigating impacts on the environment.
It was all about removing some of the guesswork.
‘‘You’re taking all of it out,’’ farmer Craige Mackenzie said.
In 2003, Fonterra entered into the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord with the government and regional councils, with the aim of reducing the impact of dairying on water quality.
This was then followed in 2013 with the Sustainable Dairying Water Accord, and stock was now excluded from 97 per cent of waterways on Fonterra farms.
‘‘Every one of the streams on farms owned by Fonterra farmers is captured on GIS (geographic information systems) maps and we have a target of all farmers having documented riparian management plans by 2020, which detail how planting and other protections will help improve water quality,’’ Fonterra head of global consumer and foodservice Jacqueline Chow said last year.
Now, that GIS mapping has evolved.
GIS technology captured, managed, analysed and displayed forms of geographical information visually, such as on a map.
Fonterra’s GIS expert Blair Smith, said the initial mapping done through the accord, meant the company ended up with a data set which spatially mapped out all of its farms.
This meant it could help farmers with more than just where fences needed to be for stock exclusion, and had grown to be used to help with riparian management (the strip of land between water and the farm) and nitrogen management.
Mackenzie said he had started using farming technology, such as animal monitoring and crop sensing, back in 2006.
GIS had been crucial for his converted dairy farm, because the realigned fences of a new farm changed the fertility of paddocks.
There were two benefits to the GIS mapping, he said: it made his farm environmentally and financially stable, and the financial stability meant he could invest in more technology to make it more environmentally stable.
For instance, Mackenzie had been able to reduce his water usage by 30 to 40 per cent, while exclusion zones on the maps meant it was easy to ensure fertiliser could not come within 50 metres of waterways.
The overriding benefit was improved efficiency, but benefits for the farm, and the environment, were not going to happen overnight.
‘‘As farmers, we’re focused on good environmental outcomes, we take this seriously.
‘‘We want to do our bit and invest in the technology to do this.
‘‘Once you’ve got your head in that space, it’s not difficult.’’
Craigmore Sustainables, which has 19 dairy farms from Culverden in North Canterbury to Otago, has been using the GIS technology for one season.
Sustainability manager Warren Landles, said GIS let the company manage what was happening below the surface.
It could precisely map the different soil types across its farms: on one farm there were 16 types, on others it could be as low as two or three.
‘‘As farmers we know what’s
This new technology allows us to manage what's happening below the surface. Warren Landles
happening above ground, because we can see it with our eyes.
‘‘This new technology allows us to manage what’s happening below the surface. ‘‘It takes any guess work out.’’ This meant the farms could get away from a blanket approach and become more efficient by being able to manage the different soil types more specifically.
It had been straightforward to implement, he said, but once farmers had used it for longer, and started to work more directly with suppliers on it, you would start to see some real gains.
‘‘It gives us the ability to help us start thinking, where do we need to be in five years?’’
Smith said the technology had helped make conversations easier with farmers.
‘‘When you’ve got a map to talk to, it makes it easier.’’
Methven farmer Craige Mackenzie, said farmers are focused on good environmental outcomes.
Fonterra’s GIS mapping technology captures, manages, analyses and displays geographical information.