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Taking technology to the max
Alastair Neville – improved efficiency is always the aim.

Taking technology to the max

Alastair Neville is a young farmer doing all he can to add value to the Reporoa farm developed and farmed by his grandfather then father.

And the 28-year-old is making every use of new technology to help him that he possibly can, seeing that precision farming innovations can lead to some easy gains by cutting expenses and increasing efficiency.

“I’ve always been interested in new technology,” he said.

“Agriculture and technology are in quite an exciting space at present. There are a lot of things on the horizon in the way of further time-saving tools.”

Alastair’s initial motivation was to find a way to make technology work in their family business which, like many farm enterprises, is “seriously time poor”.

Just one area is the reduction of operator error through more accurate placement of fertiliser and seed by using Tracmap, he told the MobileTech Conference in Rotorua in March.

‘You’ve got an efficient track record of day-to-day tasks, so then you can shift into analysing data and making sound decisions. It’s quite neat and I signed up the day after it came out.’

“Not only do you have live records for monitoring purposes, you’re making more efficient use of your productive resource,” he said.

This technology allows him to organise the job then send the information to a unit on the tractor.

“It’s live in front of the operator and he can send information back which cuts down on paperwork and cuts errors out,” he said.

He calculates he gains another hectare of crop through reduction in wastage, compared with using the “eyeometer” approach. And, he said, Tracmap has more than covered its costs over the two years he’s been using it.

“It’s a really great tool because you use fertiliser and seed much better.”

Another innovation he’s full of praise for is the JobDone app developed by Rongotea dairy farmer, Nigel Taylor, which won Fonterra’s Activate challenge last year (see story below).

“I’m really excited about it,” he said.

“You’ve got an efficient track record of day-to-day tasks, so then you can shift into analysing data and making sound decisions. It’s quite neat and I signed up the day after it came out.”

He believes many farmers are sceptical and also put off by the cost of new technology.

“But they should think of the time saving and simplicity,” he said.

“I see how easy it makes things and it will soon win you over if you aren’t a great fan of paper.”

And he believes farm consultants should be some of the first adopters.

“If they are clued up they should get right into technology because of the benefit to their own businesses.”

Alastair grew up on the 160-hectare farm, of which 150ha is effective. He studied towards a Bachelor of Agricultural Science at Massey University and while there bought his parents’ herd. They were happy to manage the property until he returned home in 2011, after initially not being sure whether he wanted to remain in Palmerston North.

“I slowly worked my way into things with Mum and Dad and once I settled in they stepped back and this allowed me to hire a full-time farm assistant, who is now into his fourth season,” he said.

He places a lot of importance on staff retention, which is well catered to by the many lifestyle attractions of the area.

Big changes have happened in the six years he’s been back on the farm with a covered feedpad which can hold up to 350 cows built to provide more flexibility with herd feeding. This summer’s dry spell followed one “out of the box” with more rainfall and consistent grass growth throughout the summer months.

“Overall in recent years our climate is tending towards dry summers, so I feel we need to adapt more to the dry summer climate,” he said.

“Nowadays I reckon we grow more grass throughout the winter months than we can in our dry summers. It’s been interesting seeing the change in the Reporoa climate over the recent years although one thing that is still the same is the notorious all-day fog in winter.”

A pasture-renovation programme over the last five years has seen poorer paddocks go into new diploid and tetraploid varieties such as Rohan spreading ryegrass and Viscount perennial ryegrass. Around 50 cubic metres per hectare of whey, a byproduct from the nearby Fonterra processing plant goes on annually. Tankers are able to deliver it to 80ha with silage paddocks being the priority paddocks for whey application.

“We’ve used it for a while and this has seen our potassium and Olsen P levels rise,” he said.

Its application is managed using the Precision Farming online system, allowing Alastair to order, monitor and generate nutrient reports to give proof of when and where the whey was applied. Nitrogen goes on in a foliar application by way of dissolved urea applied via a tow and fert machine.

A Keenan mixed-ration feeder wagon was purchased in 2015 to get the best out of the capital spent on the feedpad.

“Diet software which came with it was a big factor in the decision,” he said.

You can load all the ingredients and get all the costs. You can also analyse loading accuracy to make some easy gains and save money. The margin analysis can influence your production decisions so you can work out if the feedpad is paying for itself or not. It creates valuable information which means you can save time and resources.”

Feed grown on the farm includes 13ha of lucerne which Alastair said he might look at extending in the future. Six hectares of maize go in annually and for the first time this season he grew five hectares of chicory.

“I was quite impressed and think we will move away from turnips,” he said.

At present 1.5ha are grown but the crop struggles with the area’s dry summers, leading Alastair to grow 3ha of forage rape on a regular basis.

This season 60 tonnes of a palm kernel and starch-based blend is fed from early spring to the end of AI alongside lucerne and maize silage. And during summer 30t of palm kernel was fed in addition to silage and crops.

Cow numbers have dropped slightly to 260 with the number of bull calves sold as weaners doubling to 120 for the last three years.

“It’s a good income earner and it’s buffered the drop in the milk price,” he said.

Around 80 replacements are reared every year. Calving date for the straight Friesian herd has been moved back from August 1 to July 25 with LIC Premier Sires used.

At present he’s transitioning to full autumn calving.

“This will be the last spring calving and we’ll do the long lactation stint, mate this season’s empties in June and dry off in December next year so we’ll be calving in March 2019,” he said.

“I’ve thought about it and believe it will suit well for the facilities which we’ve got. The final clincher was getting over feeding out in the summer when it’s best to have time out, using the bach or boat.”

The 28-aside herringbone dairy has been upgraded a number of times, with automatic cup removers recently added so milking can be a one-person operation.

“We haven’t got Protrack which I would have tomorrow,” Alastair said.

“But the exit space is limited.”

He’s a big believer in getting involved in organisations beyond the farmgate. He joined the Massey University Young Farmers’ Club where he took on a couple of leadership roles. When he returned to Reporoa he was instrumental in boosting the local club’s numbers from 12 to more than 50 in just 18 months.

“I spammed Facebook and social media and also used word of mouth as well as organising a community fundraiser,” he said.

The club was named the best in the country in 2013, the same year he convened the local area’s Young Farmer of the Year Competition. The following year he convened the Waikato/Bay of Plenty regional competition then in 2015 co-convened the national final, also held in that town. Last year he convened the district final in Reporoa and has also been involved with the Bay of Plenty NAIT-TB-free committee. He’s also engaged with Rotorua/Taupo Federated Farmers as a member of their executive committee.

Alastair admits to being a big social media user.

“Maybe too big,” he said.

“But it’s a great tool for selling the agricultural story. And people can pick up early on new products rather than having to go to Fieldays every year to see what’s in the Innovation Tent.”

He uses Twitter but more for industry-based messaging with other farmers.

“I don’t read papers so much but when I’m sitting behind the cows I can take in little bits and pieces of information,” he said.

“My attention span’s not that great but I’m always walking around with my device in my hand. When I leave home it is ‘smartphone, keys, wallet’.”

And to prove his point he showed the MobileTech audience a photo of himself multitasking onfarm. While he was attending to a downer cow which was paralysed he was at the same time able to code some business transactions from the paddock on his phone.

“You’re not torn between the office and the farm,” he said.

“Technology makes it all easy and seamless.”

Key points

Location: Reporoa, Central Plateau

Owners: C and A Neville Family Trust

50:50 sharemilker: Alastair Neville, Mountview Farming Trust

Area: 160ha, 150ha effective

Cows: 270 straight Friesians peak milked 270

Production: Target 2016/17, 116,000kg milksolids

Dairy: 28-aside herringbone with automatic cup removers

Supplements: 6ha maize, 5ha chicory, 1.5ha turnips, 3ha forage rape, 13ha lucerne, up to 60 tonnes of palm kernel starch-based blend.


Simon Gilson, left, and Nigel Taylor at the MobileTech Conference.

Just getting the job done

JobDone was launched commercially in early March, with pricing based on a subscription service.

Inventor, Nigel Tayor, told the MobileTech Conference he was a fourth-generation Rongotea dairy farmer.

“I’d expanded to multiple farms and I was time-poor and felt disconnected,” he said.

“Issues escalated and minor problems became major. Often farmers don’t set their expectations, they just say, ‘Shift the irrigator’. I thought there must be a better way so I made my own.”

Working with Javlin Software he set up a staff roster which allowed his staff to sign in on their mobile phones. They could then access instructions of where they needed to be along with a list of hazards they might encounter. A step by step guide was included and they could take a photo when they were finished to show the job was completed. Workers could also, via the app, report new hazards they came across onfarm as well as jobs that needed to be attended to.

An iPad added at the dairy meant every visitor could check in and then out together with the time and their comments.

“That way I know they’ve gone home safely.”

Taylor said nearly every element of his farming operations had seen efficiency gains since the introduction of JobDone. But getting the technology out to other farmers to use was more difficult than he had thought.

“I didn’t realise how much capital and time would be needed,” he said.

The answer came in the form of Don Forgie, Tui Garden Products’ managing director, getting involved and Dale Smith, the chief executive of Javlin Software, becoming a 50% equity partner.

Simon Gilson was employed as general manager and has been busy working with Fonterra and liaising with dairy farmers about their requirements. He told Mobiletech he was interested in hearing about new features farmers would like to see included such as health and safety checklists, timesheets and task allocation.

“It’s up to farmers as to the steps their workers take,” he said.

“It will save farmers significant time and money.”

Glenys Christian