Eye in the sky cuts time and costs

Image of a man and his son with a remote controlled drone

New Zealand growers Neil and Mark Gardyne put their farm drone on show after delivering the keynote agricultural futures address at the 2014 Digital Rural Futures Conference.

PHOTO: Grace Yu

When it comes to technology, the Gardyne farming family from New Zealand likes to be ‘early adopters’. Neil Gardyne says the survival of their farming business depends on it.

Neil and his son, Mark, delivered the first Agricultural Futures keynote address at the Digital Rural Futures Conference in Toowoomba, Queensland, in June, demonstrating the latest technology on their farm – a NZ$15,000 (A$13,900) camera-equipped drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

For the past year, the Gardynes have been using the drone as their ‘eyes in the sky’ to monitor stock, water troughs, crops and harvesting practices. The drone has become a valuable tool but it is not Neil who has mastered it – 13-year-old Mark is the pilot.

“I’ve made a conscious decision not to learn to fly the machine,” says Neil, who believes technology like this will help attract new generations into farming. “Young people are interested in this technology. We need to tag that interest to agriculture,” he says.

When Neil and his wife Philippa invested their life savings in a 22 per cent share of a small, “hobby-sized” farm 14 years ago they decided innovation was their only hope.

Today, they operate two sheep, beef and cropping farms on New Zealand’s South Island, run 10,000 units of stock and are ranked in the top two per cent for their class of mixed farming. In seven years they have reduced their farm debt by NZ$1.35 million (A$1.25 million) and enjoyed an average annual capital gain of 13 per cent.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that profit is a choice,” Neil says. “You can sit where you are or you can innovate and grow.”

GPS was the family’s first real experiment with technology. Since 2002 they have adopted precision-agriculture techniques to guide practices such as fertiliser application (the nutrient maps are used by the aerial spraying aircraft for proof of placement), sheep stocking rates and paddock boundary changes based on pasture dry matter levels.

Neil says he was sceptical when they started using GPS. “I backed myself that I was already accurate. But I found I was overlapping 20 per cent of our pastures with fertiliser,” Neil says. With the use of nutrient mapping to determine variable application rates across his farm, Neil believes he is saving at least 35 per cent in application costs.

Neil says GPS has revolutionised his farm, with the next technology revolution being drones. From the outset, he was prepared to pay NZ$50,000 (A$46,400) for a drone. “When we looked at what we could do with it we thought it was probably worth just under one labour unit, so about NZ$60,000 to NZ$65,000 [A$55,700 to A$60,300] per year,” he says. “We have given ourselves five years to achieve that.”

Neil believes the machine has already realised about 20 per cent of one labour unit and that, ultimately, his family has underestimated the full value of the tool, which could be saving them up to NZ$200,000 (A$185,500) a year in the near future.

The initial reason for buying the drone was Neil’s frustration with losing too many cast ewes (a ewe unable to get back onto its feet). On average, the Gardynes had been losing two per cent of their stock at an estimated cost of NZ$24,000 (A$22,300) a year. Regular monitoring was impeded by distance and difficult access to some paddocks in winter.

“It might take 40 minutes to get to a paddock in a vehicle, but I can get the drone there in less than five minutes,” Mark Gardyne says.

The camera surveillance will identify if there is a problem, justifying a follow-up trip or, as Mark demonstrated during the conference, the drone has actually been used to encourage a cast ewe back onto its feet.

It is a similar story with the Gardynes’ 43 water troughs. The drone takes seven minutes to complete a monitoring task that once took an hour and a quarter.

“If there’s a problem you can then go out with the right tools,” says Neil, due to the camera’s ability to ‘see’ the cause of the problem.

With eight deaths and 800 injuries from quad bike accidents in New Zealand every year, Neil is also happy to see his family spending less time travelling across the farm.

The drone has also helped detect disease and pests in oat crops and last season it highlighted issues with harvesting technique, which will now help Neil and his contractor achieve better results in 2015 on areas with difficult topography.

Neil and Mark have also seen how others are using drones, such as a farmer who had lost 30 deer. “He got a helicopter in for three hours, cost him NZ$5000 [A$4600] with zero result. We were there for 15 minutes and had 28 of them back where they should have been,” Neil says.

“Another grower, three times our size, reckons he spends 19 days a year manually looking for faults in his electric fences. He’s looking at using a drone that could cut 10 days off this.”

Using the drone to count stock is the next step for the Gardynes, but Neil believes the major gains will be achieved through longer-term developments, particularly around the ability to set the drone to fly autonomously and using sensor technology to pre-empt disease and pest infestations and gather data such as dry matter density.

More information:

Neil Gardyne,
nipnpeil@hotmail.com

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Procedures keep the business engine running

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Digital future has a wide horizon

GRDC Project Code GCS10769

Region North, Overseas