Words by: Jackie Harrigan

Terms like “Information is power”, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” and “big data” have led to the world and farms becoming awash with data.

Joel Hensman

But how do you deal with 1.83 million data points relating to one centre pivot over a year – information overload might be the error message flashing up in that farmer’s brain!

With many aspects of farming growing in compliance, there is an increasing requirement away from the things that drive business success. The mental load can be heavy for farmers as there are many factors to consider each day all with decisions to be made.

Farmers are better served with real time business insights and practical actions rather than raw data, Joel Hensman says. He is senior manager of business development for Regen, a company that turns data from sensors into insights and actions for farmers.

“It’s like a shopper buying a smart phone.”

“You don’t necessarily need or want to know the inner workings of how the phone operates, you just want to know it takes good photos, makes phone calls and runs your favourite apps for the outcome you desire.”

Regen takes farm-specific data collected around water, effluent and nitrogen management and turns it into actions and insights for irrigation, effluent and nitrogen fertiliser application, Hensman says.

The data from a range of real time sensors, including weather station data, soil moisture and temperature readings and water meter readings, is turned into daily recommendations, meaningful to farmers for running their business, helpful for showing and recording good management practice (GMP) and helping them meet compliance and consent standards.

Keep it simple

Some people enjoy digging deeper into data analysis while many farmers tend to want to just see the actions they need to take.

“We learned pretty early on that simpler is better for the front end,” Hensman says.

“We want to enable farmers to spend the appropriate amount of time on each aspect – giving them headspace back to focus on other things.

“For example, effluent management is only a small part of a dairy business and it doesn’t directly drive profit. At the end of the day it’s only effluent – if a farmer has to focus really hard on effluent they could be missing other things more important to the business overall.”

‘I sometimes hear farmers say, yes I’ve got effluent sorted, I have invested in the infrastructure, we’ve got the storage now. Then if it isn’t managed or monitored well they find that the pond is near full at the end of autumn and they run out of opportunities to irrigate through winter.’ 

The effluent tool is easily actioned by daily texts informing the team (as many team members as needed can be sent the message) how much effluent can be applied that day. The mobile app dashboard uses a very simple traffic light system to indicate whether storage is on target and applications have been made at suitable times.

“We want the team to be able to see at a glance – in only 3-5 seconds – if everything is looking as it should or we need to pay effluent some attention. Everyone understands traffic lights, why make it more complicated than it needs to be? Green means it’s on target, amber means you are trending away, red means extra attention needs to be given to get things back on track.

“We are focused on empowering farmers to be proactive rather than reactive.”

Alongside the traffic lights sits percentages of pond volume, and GMP trends over a fortnight. It then includes the required pumping needed to get storage levels back on target.

With the rate of expected change in the industry at an all-time high, there is a big opportunity for tools to maximise the investment farmers have already made in infrastructure. Whether it be pivot irrigation or lined effluent ponds, there are expectations that water and nutrient are used to GMP levels. On top of this there are big opportunities to eliminate wasted water, power, nutrient, time and stress, Hensman says.

“I sometimes hear farmers say, yes I’ve got effluent sorted, I have invested in the infrastructure, we’ve got the storage now. Then if it isn’t managed or monitored well they find that the pond is near full at the end of autumn and they run out of opportunities to irrigate through winter. It is unnecessary stress to have to choose between irrigating on to wet soils and potentially be non-compliant, or pay contractor costs to have the pond pumped out.

“Peace of mind comes from having effluent storage metrics relative to where you want to be – with a target that moves throughout the season and changes depending on how many cows you are milking at different times of the year,” he says.

Monthly targets can be set and customised for different management systems and the system measures and reports against that.

Where are you now, where do you want to be and how do you get back to where you want to be? are the questions Hensman says it’s important to answer. Capturing data and reporting automatically is a big saving in time and head space for compliance, Hensman says.

“We are empowering farmers by giving them opportunities to meet good management practices.”

In the future Hensman says there are lots of other practical uses for key farm data. The information already collected can be further delivered in a way that brings more value over time.

“We are focused on practical lead indicators that farmers can use to proactively manage many aspects of their business. This could include decisions to graze or stand cows off, future soil management for climate change mitigation, and other metrics including animal health and crop management.


Sh*t hits the fan under stress

It is somewhat inevitable that when farmers are under stress the wheels fall off parts of the operation.

In discussions with supportive farmers who help others in times of high stress, effluent management regularly features in the top three areas of  concern alongside lame cows and mastitis levels.

The beauty of a system like Regen is that once set and bedded in, the system requires no computation or data analysis by the farmer, Hensman says.

“The farmer can trust and follow the actions sent every day by text alert or app notification.”

Southland contract milker Tangaroa Walker attests to the fact that effluent
management is both affected by stress and itself is a cause of stress.

“The first thing I let go when two staff left in the middle of calving was effluent management.

“When you get under the pump, effluent management goes out the window, you know you have a storage pond there and so you just rely on that capacity.”

Having the Regen programme for the past five years, Walker says it’s excellent and does the thinking for him.

“I get the message every morning telling me what I should do and it helps me manage my farm and my effluent.”