NZ farmers become innovative in choosing technology: Agrioptics

Potential savings and changing standards frameworks are driving farmers to use more technology.

New Zealand farmers have become very innovative in picking up technology, says Agrioptics chief executive Craige Mackenzie. It wasn’t always so.

“They were slow to start but they’re right up there now,” he says.

Agrioptics specialises in precision agriculture, focusing on crop sensors and farm and field mapping technology. The company started in the South Island; Mackenzie says he is launching Agrioptics North soon. He is also the chairman of the Precision Agriculture Association of New Zealand, formed last year.

While a farmer’s first concern for his business is economic performance, the environment is also top of mind, particularly now that the government is seeking to introduce national water quality standards.

In some respects, they’re one and the same. “What’s good for the bottom line is good for the environment,” Mackenzie says.

And the application of modern technology – particularly complex modelling – is certainly good for both. According to Mackenzie, there are savings of nearly 40 per cent to be made on applying fertiliser, and savings of up to 32 per cent in the use of water.

Overseer is the main modelling tool for dairying. First developed some decades ago by the fertiliser industry, it is now owned and further developed by the industry’s lobby group, Fertiliser New Zealand, AgResearch and the Ministry for Primary Industry.

It uses easily accessible input data and accounts for most of the various farm management practices typical in New Zealand. The model is the appropriate tool for the estimation of nitrogen and phosphate balances at farm/paddock level.

As Overseer has been further developed, it is becoming a tool used by regional councils and bodies such as NIWA in formulating policy. As the use of such models grows, it has allowed the establishment of nitrogen management targets, such as fertiliser caps and to demonstrate compliance with legislation.

Meanwhile, the proposed national water standards have been opened up for debate by the Government. The freshwater reform framework is designed to give communities more tools and guidance so they can make better decisions on managing water.

More than 60 freshwater scientists from public, private and academic groups have put numbers on the bottom lines for fresh water. These thresholds have been tested with some water users to make sure they are practical.

Among other obligations, councils will be required to identify levels of E. coli, periphyton, nitrate, ammonia and dissolved oxygen as well as sediment, heavy metals, pH, temperature, and insect and fish life.

Farmers have welcomed the science and the community-based approach of the reforms.

Federated Farmers environment spokesman Ian Mackenzie says the proposals present a significant change in how communities will plan for water.

He says the framework will provide an accounting system for measuring water quantity and quality and will reduce much of the subjective emotion in water talks.

Setting standards scientifically, culturally and economically for the first time would not be easy and would need some sacrifice from agriculture, and also urban communities as some of the most polluted waterways were in towns and cities.

The use of sophisticated modelling tools such as Overseer for estimating nutrient loss to waterways is a key component.

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