NZ's agriculture solution looking for sustainable business model

The software is one of the key NZ agriculture solutions that is accessed by other countries without any charge

Overseer, New Zealand’s principal nutrient management model that allows users to calculate a nutrient budget, particularly in complex farm systems, will have a new release before April next year.

The software, which can model many enterprises, including dairy, sheep, beef, deer, dairy goats, fruit, vegetables and arable crops, is one of the key NZ agriculture solutions that is accessed by other countries without any charge.

Overseer is about capturing nutrient transfers at the farm scale. It looks at how individual small-scale models are combined to be able to scale up to a farm. It also works on the development of databases such as climate, nutrient content and temporal variation in pasture nutrient content that underpins the model.

In addition, Overseer also helps with the development of approaches to deal with issues such as nutrient deposition in laneways and on hard surfaces where published information is generally lacking. It is a mathematical representation of complex bio-physical management systems.

In recent times it has been used in a planning and regulatory context to inform and implement regional council water quality nutrient management plans and as part of industry-audited self-management processes.

”Very few countries have anything like it,” says Phillip Mladenov, chief scientist at FANZ. “They measure inputs but Overseer measures outputs, so there is no regulation around stock numbers and fertiliser use. It’s definitely a concept that could be used by other countries.”

Overseer was originally developed early in the 1990s as a model for fertiliser company representatives to provide recommendations. Over the past five years, around $8 million has been spent developing the model, which is now owned jointly by the Fertiliser Association of New Zealand, the Ministry of Primary Industries, and AgResearch. Each now contributes around $1.5 million a year to enhancing Overseer, which is currently up to version 6.1.

There are no licensing or user fees. In New Zealand, farm consultants use it, it has been adopted by regional councils as a regulatory tool, and NIWA uses it for catchment models.

“We’re all curious about how we can produce a sustainable business model for it,” Mladenov says. “We’re just beginning to think about the long-term funding prospects.”

While they would have to adapt the model to their local inputs, people overseas are freely accessing it, says AgResearch scientist David Wheeler. He’s aware of downloads from the United States, Australia, South America and Europe. They pay nothing.

New Zealand has 11,500 dairy farms and 15,000 sheep farms. Typically, a farmer will use a consultant to model nutrient input via Overseer. There are some concerns. “If it is used as a regulatory tool, people will fight against it,” Mladenov says.

That might mean, for instance, regulating stock numbers, a possibility given concerns around nutrient run-off into waterways.

Using a protocol developed by the dairy industry for audited self-management, a draft National Overseer Data Input Standards document has been produced. It has been the subject of review and agreement from a full range of agricultural industry and regulatory stakeholders and should be finalised by the end of the year.

Mladenov and Wheeler agree that there is export opportunity with Overseer. Each of their organisations spends a good deal of time and resource improving the software. That requires funding; there seems no reason why it couldn’t make a handsome profit, too.

Overseer is developed in Visual Studio.

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Tags agriculture ITmodellingdata modellingOverseer

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