Farming at the frontier

Enterprising farmers, scientists and rural professionals are exploring what the NZ dairy farm will look like in 2030.

Inside Dairy

6 min read

“My son believes, in 20 years’ time, he’ll be able to physically operate the farm by using his Farming Simulator gaming console, which is pretty crazy.” North Waikato farm owner Colin Hickey is talking about Thomas (13), who with his sister Mikayla (11), has his sights set firmly on a dairying career. “Thomas and Mikayla are both keen on farming, and they’re excited that in the future they could be more connected with the farm using technology,” says Colin.

“As I’m a Halter farm user and my cows move themselves anyway, the kids are already in touch with that technology and they can see how that will get better. Doing things like milking using the computer console – all the gaming skills they’ve got will come to the fore.” 

This focus on the future explains why Colin put his hand up to get involved in DairyNZ’s Frontier Farms project. It aims to keep New Zealand dairying competitive by looking a decade ahead, identify ways to head off challenges that might not be on many farmers’ radar right now and capitalise on opportunities.

Core collaboration

Colin and Southland farm owner Ruth Prankerd were among several farmers involved in a DairyNZ Frontier Farms design workshop in October 2022. Many of DairyNZ’s staff and rural professionals at the workshop are past or current dairy farmers too. 

“I think it’s so great that farmers are at the core of this particular project,” says Ruth, who farms at Winton. “We’re the ones ‘doing it’, so it’s essential we have some input into what the project’s solutions might be.”

Colin says the value of a project like this focusing so far ahead, is that farmers could hit the ground 20 years ahead of the game. 

“With everything that’s coming at us from every angle, farmers need to be on it. It’s absolutely what DairyNZ should be doing, and I think it’s fantastic.”

He also believes it’s critical to have the right experts in place. 

“Those experts get forgotten about when you’re out on the farm day to day. But when there’s a massive problem looming, we need those experts to have the solutions. They’re extremely valuable in testing theories that might help us solve problems.” Having farmers contributing ideas and feedback is an important part of the project, says Paul Edwards, DairyNZ science lead and Frontier Farms project lead. 

“They’ve been a key part in setting the direction and we look forward to their continued input when piloting their ideas next season. We’d also like to see them involved if we progress our ideas to a farm-scale demonstration too. 

“We know Kiwi farmers are real innovators, so it’s exciting to be working closely with them on designing systems and improvements.”

Trial by tenacity

Staying ahead of things and planning for the long game is a strong driver behind how DairyNZ invests the farmers’ levy, says Paul. 

“With this project, we’re collaborating with sector partners and farmers to develop working farm demonstrations that test new farm systems. The work we’re doing now is piloting a range of ideas: some of them are novel and new, and some are reinventing old ideas in a new context. 

“We know that when we design novel systems, they won’t always perform as we anticipate. A lot of our learnings will be in understanding why our system changes didn’t work the first time, and then refining our ideas so they perform better,” says Paul.

Nicola and Colin Hickey are looking to the future.

Colin hopes Frontier Farms will inspire the next generation of farmers, like daughter Mikayla.

Frontier and centre

NZ exports 95% of its milk, so we need to ensure it’s a more attractive product to key markets. In 2022 we looked at the future competitiveness of US mega-dairies and identified three farm system design challenges to achieve in our pasture-based dairy system to maintain our position.

“The first two challenges were to create time and labour-saving benefits while reducing the cost of production,” says Paul. “The third is also important: that there’s enough transparency across our farming practices to ensure they remain acceptable to consumers and the wider community.” 

After discussing these three challenges, the participants of the October 2022 workshop settled on designing a system to ‘flatten the peak’ in labour requirements across a season (i.e., over calving and mating) and within a day (i.e., for milking).

More specifically, to flatten the requirements across a season, the group came up with extended lactation with a 24-month calving interval as the preferred solution. This approach has half the cows calving one year, the other half the next year. 

“Clearly this is pushing the frontier, so we’re planning farmlet trials to pilot this system at DairyNZ’s Scott Farm in the 23/24 season, ahead of any farm-scale demonstration,” says Paul. 

To flatten labour demand within a day, the project team will explore batch milking via robotics. This is where cows are milked as a group, rather than having them walk voluntarily to the dairy throughout the day, like most robotic systems. 

“The creative thinking is how to design a system that allows New Zealand dairy farmers to use this technology affordably by minimising the number of milking points required. That’s likely to require using other technologies like virtual herding to unlock the full benefit. This would also provide a rich data source for providing that transparency of the system,” says Paul. 

Other complementary ideas are being explored in pilot studies underway at DairyNZ’s Scott Farm. 

“Often these are not new concepts,” explains Paul. “Instead, it’s about using them in a different way to what was initially investigated and taking into account whether our operating context has changed. 

“For example, one of these is the old idea of having cows spend longer than 24 hours in a paddock, but with fewer larger paddocks. That’s something that was investigated in the 1950s, but advances in technology make it an idea worth revisiting.”

The big picture… 

While the project’s focus is on competitiveness, Ruth Prankerd believes there’s another important aspect to consider. 

“I’ve flogged myself for 15 years in this sector and worked really hard. So, I’m looking to improve efficiency but not only that: I want to protect what we’ve got and not take it for granted, whether that’s my family, my people, our community, or the farm and its environment. 

“For example, I love to see my farm manager out there with his four-yearold son fishing in the river, enjoying that, having the time to do that, having that on our doorstep. I think, ‘aren’t we lucky’ and I want to protect that. 

“Southland’s a bloody good place to farm. You do have to think about dollars per kilo of production, but it’s also about taking everyone on a wider journey and seeing the holistic picture.”

…and picture this

Colin says that, just before Christmas 2022, he sat down with Thomas and Mikayla to talk about what their farm might look like in 10 years. 

“We think there’ll be some on-farm renewable energy, a lot of wearable technology, and probably robots doing tasks somewhere on the farm. The farm will be self-contained to mitigate biosecurity challenges.” Everything they’ll do will be directly connected to their customers, says Colin, whether through the internet, social media, or in other ways. 

“We also believe our marginal land will be repurposed into into other revenue streams. There’ll be a high level of farmer and worker satisfaction, and a lot of autonomy around vehicles, cows, milking, pasture management and calf rearing.” 

Colin’s big wish is to see this project inspiring the next generation, letting them know that farmers and researchers are thinking about them and what their future’s going to look like. 

“Many farmers do their day-to-day actions and think that sets their destination. 

I think it should be the other way around: you set your destination and you make your dayto-day actions help you reach that destination. “By understanding where the future can go, farmers can start adapting their operation now to meet those needs. I hope farmers will look at the Frontier Farms project and go ‘this is real cool, this is exactly what we need to do’.”

Decades of experience: DairyNZ scientists Chris Glassey, Paul Edwards and Jenny Jago with Colin.

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The Hickeys’ farming future is right in front of them.

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The Prankerd kids get a buzz out of growing up on the farm.

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Michael and Ruth Prankerd (with Lydia, 10 and Florence, 6) say doing right by their people is also “super important”.

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About US mega-dairies

In 2022, DairyNZ and Perrin Ag researched United States mega-dairies as the Frontier Farms project’s first competitor analysis. 

Mega-dairy farms typically run more than 2500 cows, some of which have shown an ability to achieve a high operating profit margin and can scale up and supply the world market. The analysis identified labour efficiency, cost of production and transparency of farm systems as areas where they could have an advantage in the future. 

Note: while US mega-dairies operate farms using barn systems, Frontier Farms aims to design systems that improve competitiveness within New Zealand’s pasture-based farming model. 

After US mega-dairies, the next global competitor to be assessed will be plant and precision-fermented milk alternatives.

US mega-dairies

Hear more about Frontier Farms in our interview with DairyNZ’s Paul Edwards, farm owner Colin Hickey and Perrin Ag managing director Lee Mathieson in Talking Dairy episode 46.

I’m looking to improve efficiency but not only that: I want to protect what we’ve got and not take it for granted.

Page last updated:

31 May 2023


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