An award-winning Southland farming family are looking to the sky for inspiration to reduce costs on their hill country sheep, beef and cropping farm.
And Neil and Philippa Gardyne, with the technical expertise of their 13-year-old son Mark, have good cause for optimism.
With funding support from Beef+Lamb NZ, the Gardynes are adapting a drone to fly sorties over their sheep flocks on 466ha of flat, rolling to steep hill country in the Otama Valley north-west of Gore.
“We’re looking at using them as a farm tool,” Mr Gardyne explains.
“We’re still opening 120 gates a day at lambing time, so we decided to think a little bit outside the square on how we could simplify that.”
The Gardynes have rolled four-wheelers on their hill country in recent years so safety is a big factor in their search for a safer alternative.
Mark was just 11 when he started researching the Internet for information on drones.
“We spent 14 months researching them, which was difficult because there wasn’t a lot of information out there about their use in agriculture,” his father said.
With nothing available in New Zealand at the time, the Gardynes invested $4000 in a Chinese-made Hexocopter with six rotary blades, sourced from the United States.
For their money they got a high-spec machine powered by rechargeable lithium batteries and carrying two cameras. It weighs 1.8kg, carries a payload of 2kg and has all the technology for fully autonomous flight.
The drone flies a pre-determined flight plan, following pre-programmed waypoints, feeding back live pictures or recorded images to a laptop computer.
“We use it to monitor the whole farm for cast sheep or ewes having trouble lambing. We can record where it is and go and attend to the problem.
“Last year we went around the hoggets twice a day on a motorbike, but over a period of 21 days we only lambed two hoggets so there was absolutely no need to go around them on a motorbike,” Mr Gardyne said.
“If we can monitor them from a drone, we can save a lot of time and effort.
“It takes two hours to drive around the farm looking for cast sheep. This machine will do it in 20 minutes, an 80 per cent saving in time.
“It cuts out monitoring by four times so we’re more able to make proactive decisions and that’s probably the primary driver,” he said.
“We’re careful to say it’s not a toy. It’s a farm implement and needs to be used for constructive purposes.”
He calculates the family’s $4000 investment could save them $40,000 annually in time and fuel costs.
Perhaps even more exciting is the machine’s potential to perform other farm tasks that could eventually encourage a more proactive approach to farm management.
This week the drone was due to be fully utilised remotely monitoring hogget lambing.
The Gardynes have also taken on their first commercial job to take high-level images for a neighbour to help him electronically map field tile drains.
With the support of Beef+Lamb NZ and AbacusBio, the Gardynes are using technology developed by Landcare Research to count sheep numbers without having to drive around the farm.
Ultimately, their goal is to be able to measure pasture production from the air.
“If we can measure dry matter production [from a drone] and we know our rainfall, we can make proactive decisions for sheep that will greatly improve growth rates in our lambs,” Mr Gardyne said.
The software for this capability has been developed in Australia for use on satellites, but the module is still being perfected in New Zealand to be carried by a drone.
The Gardynes have budgeted the three stage programme over the next three years will cost them about $10,000 a year.