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’.”