The New Zealand dairy industry is a multi-billion dollar export earner is due to its world-beating efficiency, yet it is being limited by a telecomms infrastructure that delivers barely more than dial-up speeds to many farmers.
That’s the view of Dairy NZ’s Eric Hillerton, who concedes it is “rather extreme”. The Scotsman turned dairy research general manager says he no longer finds broadband surprising, just frustrating.
“The business is New Zealand’s biggest export earner, upon which NZ’s well-being rests, so if it’s so important why is it we are being so badly served?” he asks.
The total number of dairy farmers isn’t high — around 12,500 — but they are having trouble accessing even a basic internet services, even though they could make good use of decent broadband. And the need is growing. Ten years ago, dairy farms were 70% owner-operated, now that’s down to 60% as farms become corporate-owned, says Hillerton.
But these farms have the potential to be even more efficient as their increasingly centralised management has the ability to fully interrogate data sent from the computerised — and soon robotic — dairy sheds. This data can be used to remotely determine the health of what can be very large herds of up to 900 dairy cows.
Dairy exports represent around 20% of all New Zealand exports and the $6 billion industry accounts for 35% of all world trade in dairy products, according New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.
“[Service] is okay before 6am, which is good as Fonterra sends the daily milk-quality report overnight,” says Hillerton. But from 8am on until midnight connections slow down as other people come online for the work day and then, later, get into downloading music at night. Farmers can’t even open email attachments speeds are so slow,” Hillerton says.
Some farmers have looked at installing satellite dishes, but, compared with the Telecom-delivered service (which costs $30-$40 a month) $200 a month, plus a $400 installation charge, is pretty steep, says Hillerton. He adds that, while dairy is doing very well, with a 60% increase in gross income, feed and other costs have risen substantially, and the Waikato drought cut milk production in the region by 28%.
Dairy NZ recently had a great example of how useful basic broadband can be, when it used internet voting for the first time to conduct the six-yearly levy campaign election — and got its biggest response ever.
But, it’s in the dairy shed that broadband access could make the most difference by gathering data provided by computerised milking machines, to assess animal health from milk yield. Animal locomotion and weight can also be gauged, as they step onto a weighing platform, to detect lameness and any weight loss, which can mean a cow is sick or not grazing well.
Even more fine-tuned interrogation is possible to detect white blood-cell count, which can indicate a mastitis infection, or progesterone levels, which reveal when a cow is fertile and fit for breeding.
Robotic milking machines are also about to be introduced — the first commercially, in Canterbury, next month. These monitor milk quality and can text a dairy worker if there is a problem. They can also “squirt” data anywhere, says Hillerton.
“Two of the companies making them are in Sweden and the Netherlands, where they can interrogate the data and fix any problems remotely. But this needs broadband.”
To get its message across, the industry-owned body has recently employed policy staff for the first time, part of whose job is to lobby Wellington about telecomms and carbon emission issues to ensure the dairy industry stays profitable, sustainable and competitive, Hillerton says.