M. bovis, IoT and the rise of NZ AgTech

Published on the 06/07/2018 | Written by Jonathan Cotton

NZ agtech using IoT

With a little will and some clever new tech, New Zealand’s agricultural sector may be on the cusp of a tech revolution...

While New Zealand farmers have never been tech-shy (tyranny of distance and all that) they seem a little slow at embracing everyone’s favourite emerging tech du jour, IoT.

That’s according to Kiwi internet-everything advocacy group, the New Zealand IoT Alliance. Executive director of the group Kriv Naicker says a major study into the potential benefits of IoT last year found that better use of IoT across agriculture could provide more than $570 million for the economy.

Whether that figure turns out to be accurate remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: there’s a lot of room for improvement. Most egregious case in point, the recent Mycoplasma bovis outbreak at a dairy farm in the Cambridge, the heartland dairy region’s first known case. This, it follows, was a direct failure of the National Animal Identification Tracing system (NAIT), which made low frequency (LF) RFID tags mandatory on all beef cattle back in 2011. The disease arrived in 240 cows purchased in mid-2016 from M. bovis central: the Zeestraten farm in Southland where M. bovis was first detected – in Dec 2015.

Making matters worse, the response is still being hindered, according to biosecurity New Zealand spokesperson Geoff Gwynn, by continued lack of compliance and poor record keeping through NAIT. While the vision of tagging cattle on and off farms and in to a national database was sound, the implementation failed at the farm gate.

The blame shifting is now in full swing (according to Labour, the system, inherited from National, was underfunded and “deeply flawed”) but thankfully there’s more to New Zealand agtech than this mildly contagious mess.

The $570 million benefit may turn out instead to be potential for loss reduction.

Still, the carrot is large, attracting some very big investors. As in this week’s news that Waikato-based startup Halter has secured NZ$8 million in Silicon Valley venture capital – via Data Collective, the largest backers of Rocket Lab with support from Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and Ubiquity Ventures – to help farms ‘steer’ their dairy cows around the farm by way of IoT and artificial intelligence.

“Halter’s solar powered GPS-enabled intelligent neck band directs cows, so farmers can shift and manage their cows remotely with a few simple swipes on a screen,” Naicker says.

It’s hoped the tech will help farms sustainably increase production, save billions on labour costs and improve animal welfare and environmental compliance.

“Complex cow movements, path planning, health and heat detection is all done by AI behind Halter’s platform,” says Naicker. “Halter’s app moves herds to and from the milk shed, receives alerts when cows are showing signs of poor health and provides virtual fences keeping cows out of rivers and drains.” Presumably with a zap to the neck.

It’s just one example in a global race for clever tech looking to drag the farming sector into the 21st century.

Huawei is working with China Telecom on an IoT-based ‘Connected Cow’ animal husbandry project, with trials currently being held at an undisclosed New Zealand location.

Similarly to Halter, the project equips cattle with collars containing IoT chipsets which send farmers information about the cows’ temperature, certain abnormal behaviors and, most importantly, when the animals are ready to mate, with the aim of improving all-important pregnancy rates.

Though much maligned for its environmental cost, the agricultural sector still forms a significant part of the national GDP. With better information capture and management, there’s hope that we can continue to enjoy the economic benefits of our farming strength, while negating at least a few of those costs.

What needs to be overcome, however, is a farming culture which is fiercely independent and not especially interested in government mandated rules and reporting. Maybe that will be the upside of the M.bovis experience, with the help of some smart tech.

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