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Moo-ving rural broadband forwards

01 Dec 2010

Farmers are already running complex financial models to maximise their returns. If milk prices are high, for example, they work out how much supplemental feed they can buy to increase production, yet still make a profit.And the modelling is spreading out to the paddocks too. Almost all dairy farmers, for example, are already working out the nutrient budgets for their land using Overseer, a software programme developed by AgResearch and partners. It tells them the optimum amount of fertiliser the soil can use. Any more would cause the fertiliser to leach into waterways and pollute them.Similarly, dairy farmers are already collecting a lot of data on the health and productivity of each cow in their herds. Consumers overseas are demanding ever-more data to ensure traceability of a portion of meat, or package of dairy product, right back to the animal and farm it came from.The drivers of these data-driven applications are just as much about the growing complexity and sophistication of farming as it is about the growing demands for information from downstream players in the value chain, such as retailers and consumers.For example, the economics of farming is pushing farmers to use their land and animals more intensively. But that in turn puts extra pressure on the environment, thus measuring, monitoring and managing very complex, high variable factors in the eco-system requires ever more computing power and expert analysis. This is almost as big an issue for horticulture and arable farming as it is for livestock farming.Farming, as a result, is becoming more like engineering. Success depends on applying increasingly sophisticated technology, but farmers have a tougher job than other engineers. Growing food in complex, variable and difficult-to-control biological and environmental systems is harder than making cars or microprocessors in climate-controlled factories.Farmers’ business models are also demanding. They can manage their on-farm business but they are at the beginning of a long value chain. They have next-to-no influence over downstream businesses and thus the ultimate financial return to them.Demands on farmers are rising fast. Customers want more food, higher quality and better environmental and animal welfare outcomes, all at affordable prices. Meanwhile, competition from big, low-cost producers abroad is ramping up fast.To meet these challenges, farmers are adopting more science and technology, capturing much more data, some of it in real-time, analysing it, seeking external advice, innovating quickly, implementing rapidly, and feeding the results back into their farming systems and business models.Data drives all this and for all other aspects of rural work and life. Data flows are as essential to rural New Zealand as electricity is and fast broadband is as critical for delivery as reticulation is for electricity.