- 1 Technologies for Detection and Treatment of Fresh Cow Urine Patches, and Robotic Technologies for Precision Farming Tasks
- 2 Joint Managing Directors Geoff Bates and Bert Quin
- 2.1 Introduction and Background
- 2.2 History of Pastoral Robotics Ltd (PRL)
- 2.3 Spikey® urine-patch detection and ÒRUN® urine patch treatment
- 2.4 Click here for Trial Results with Spikey(R) urine detection and ORUN(R) treatment
- 2.5 Mini-ME®
- 2.6 Significant events – a timeline
- 2.7 2017 update – a very big year for Spikey already!
- 2.8 Other developments
Technologies for Detection and Treatment of Fresh Cow Urine Patches, and Robotic Technologies for Precision Farming Tasks
Joint Managing Directors Geoff Bates and Bert Quin
(updated 8 August 2017)
Introduction and Background
Leaching of nitrate-nitrogen (NO3-N) from cow urine patches is the most serious threat facing the future viability – environmental and quite possibly economic – of grazed dairy farms in New Zealand, and ultimately in many countries around the world. Proposed solutions to this problem have largely focused on changing the fundamental basis of the year-round grazing model to one extent or another, all requiring increased capital expenditure on and maintenance of housing or stand-off pads, and capital and running costs on collecting and distribution of manure. Solutions that permit full-time grazing are largely focused on means of better matching the energy and protein ratio of the feed to the cow’s intake requirements, such as by different plant species, or mixes of crops and pasture.
All these will require much research, and new skills to be learnt by the farmer. Previous attempts focused on to reducing losses from the urine patch include
(i) Bert Quin’s Taurine® tail-activated N-inhibitor dispensing device (the search for the perfect design coninues…), and
(ii) the sensing of micro-zones of higher pasture growth with infrared light assessment of plant chlorophyll levels. Unfortunately, by the time significantly higher chlorophyll levels can be assessed (1-2 weeks), most of the urine-N is already present as nitrate.
Pastoral Robotics Ltd currently has three main projects in action in the area of urine patch detection and treatment (see later). While initial commercial equipment will be mounted on tractors, a robotised vehicle currently under development (Mini-ME®, patent applied for) will take over these tasks eventually.
History of Pastoral Robotics Ltd (PRL)
PRL grew out of a chance meeting between Geoff Bates and Dr Bert Quin in April 2013. In addition to having his own agtech development company (Atelier Tech Ltd), Geoff was Sector Manager for Agritech at IRL, the predecessor of Callaghan Innovation (www.callaghan.co.nz). He was
developing a proposal to develop a robot tanker vehicle (Maxi-ME®) to collect and distribute dairy shed effluent and cow-home waste on a daily basis, to reduce farm and labour costs and water use. Bert, with a background in fertiliser and soil fertility research scientist, and former founder and managing director of Summit-Quinphos (now absorbed into Ballance), had been researching (through his private research and consultancy company Quin Environmentals (NZ) Ltd) the viability of using the Taurine device fitted to cows, to automatically treat urine patches, activated by the cow raising its tail. This project is still under development.
Out of their discussion came the idea of using a small fitment or trailer, towed by a farm vehicle to detect cow urine patches each day after grazing, and treat them with a proprietary mix of environmentally-safe products, with the objective of reducing nitrate leaching by at least 75%. PRL also has a major focus on developing a small robotised vehicle to do the towing (and other tasks), eliminating labour requirements.
Spikey® urine-patch detection and ÒRUN® urine patch treatment
PRL first developed a working prototype 1.8m-wide Spikey® towed by a quad-bike. Spiked metal wheels on Spikey detected recent urine patches with a high degree of accuracy by measuring soil surface electrical conductivity (patent application 617342).
After this proof-of-concept phase, PRL went on to produce a 2.8m wide version (towed by a side-by-side or big-engine quad). This was successfully farm-trialled on several farms throughout New Zealand.
Spikey® is fitted with spray equipment to allow instantaneous spraying of each of the fresh urine patches it finds with ÒRUN® – a product developed by AAA Ltd which comprises a mixture of environmentally-safe products, all of which are widely used in agriculture. The importance of this development has significantly increased following the industry’s decision to remove DCD products (such as Ravensdown’s Eco-N®) from the market.
ORUN® is a combination of the commonly-used urease inhibitor NBPT ( n-(N) – butyl triphosphoric triamide), and the widely-used growth promotant gibberellic acid GA3. In soils where dissolved organic carbon (DOC) levels may limit utilisation of urine-N, AAA Ltd’s polymeric carboxylate fulvic acid AlpHa® can be added. Based on joint research by AAA Ltd and Massey University’s Palmerston North campus, it was assessed that using ORUN® to treat fresh urine patches is likely to be as effective as DCD in reducing nitrate leaching. Results from this research, which was made possible by funding from the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC) were presented at Massey University’s FLRC Conference in February 2015. Additional information was provided at the 2016 FLRC conference.
Click here for Trial Results with Spikey(R) urine detection and ORUN(R) treatment
Spikey ® grows to 8m width for farmer use: see at National Fieldays 14-17 June Site J21
In late 2016, PRL built its first commercially-sized pre-production Spikey ® . This adds foldable 2.7m -wide wings to the central Spikey 3 module, to give a total span of 8m. This pre-production version was exhaustively tested on-farm over summer 2016/17, with a host of minor improvements incorporated into the first production models being built for limited release to high-profile dairy farms in spring 2017. New trial data was presented at the 2017 Massey University FLRC conference in February, and the very first farm-ready 8M spikey will be on display at the National Fieldays, June 14-17. Please do come and see Spikey and meet the Pastoral Robotics team at Site J21.
(Story from Rural Contractor magazine’s Dec/Jan issue to come)
Simultaneously, PRL has developed the software (and the hardware containing it) to enable a North American-built small 4WD battery-powered robot vehicle to follow pre-programmed paths on individual farm paddocks at whatever spacing is required, at a very high degree of accuracy in location, but the robot was not robust enough to cope with NZ dairy farm conditions. Design and construction of a slightly larger, more powerful and far more robust robotised, fully-autonomous vehicle (called Mini-ME ®) are currently underway in a joint project with Massey University’s Engineering School (Albany campus).
Significant events – a timeline
Geoff Bates and Bert Quin were given the opportunity to demonstrate both the Spikey® tow-behind urine detection & treatment, and the proof-of-concept Mini-ME® robotised farm-task vehicle, to a group of leading nitrogen and the environment researchers on a farm near Hamilton on 23 January. Both technologies performed to Geoff and Bert’s expectations, and promoted lively discussion.
Spikey ® was demonstrated at Massey University’s FLRC Conference (10-12 Feb). The full version of this presentation is found at the bottom of this page (click on 2015 PDF file). It had its first public demonstration at the Kirwee South Island Agricultural Field Days in March 2015.
Winning the ‘Most Innovative’ Award with Spikey® at the June 2015 Fieldays was very satisfying for the PRL team, and opened the door to discussions with some of New Zealand’s most influential agricultural companies.
In December 2015, PRL was awarded its first research grant from the NZAGRC (New Zealand Agricultural Research Council), headed by Dr Harry Clark. This grant enabled PRL to test new, more economical and robust electrical measuring and electronic data processing developments in a 2.8mwide Spikey®, which we call Spikey3. This side-by-side towed version was farm-tested extensively in 2016.
At the end of 2016, PRL built its first fully farm-scale pre-production 8m wide Spikey®. This has a similar central 2.8m wide module, but with two 2.7m wide wings, taking the total width to 8m. The wings fold up vertically for passing through farm gates and down lanes. Spikey8 is designed fror mounting on a tractor 3-point linkage, and driven at 12-15 km/hr, covering a hectare in less than 10 minutes. A typical dairy farm grazing 3-4 ha per day will take in 25-30 minutes, or an hour on an every second day basis. Spikey 8m will be thoroughly farm tested over the 2016/17 summer.
A larger (18 m wide) version is being designed for large dairy farms and use by contractors. All size versions will be able to be fitted with fertiliser hoppers to allow urea spreading on a follow-the-cows basis at the same time.
Also during 2016, the effectiveness of different urine patch spray treatments, including our ORUN® and other N inhibitors and growth promotants, have been tested by Landcare Research, Massey University and AgResearch, once again funded by the NZAGRC. Some preliminary research findings were presented at the Joint Australian and New Zealand Soil Science Societies Conference at Queenstown in December. This research has continued into 2017.
Finally, PRL made the very important step of forming a full board of directors in late 2016. The board comprises ex-large animal vet and very experienced business developer and manager Andrew MacPherson, who was elected Chairman; farmer and agriculture and environmental spokesman Lachlan McKenzie, and engineer and owner of the Reese Group of companies Ross Simpson were appointed as Directors. Geoff Bates and Dr Bert Quin were appointed as Joint Managing Directors.
2017 update – a very big year for Spikey already!
The company initiated its first investment-funding round in late December. This created a lot of interest, and was fully subscribed in 2 days. This enabled the company to commence construction of an initial batch of commercial Spikey 8Ms for supply to selected high-profile dairy farms in spring 2017, and the continuation of research and development of both Spikey® itself and the ORUN® range of treatment sprays.
The first of these farm-ready Spikey 8Ms was on display at the National Fieldays, where it received a lot of interest. This unit has been sold to a company representing a group of farms in the Rotorua Lakes district, where it successfully completed its commissioning trials in mid-September. Regular demonstrations to farmers and environmental specialists will be held during the coming months, with discussions already underway with several parties regarding further sales.
Pastoral Robotics were the proud recipients in August of the prestigious Arthur Mead Award for excellence in engineering in environmental and sustainability projects. The Award is made annuaaly by the Auckland branch of the Institute of Professional Engineers of New Zealand (IPENZ).
With the successful commercialisation of the tractor-mounted Spikey8, it is intended to increase the rate of development of the improved Mini-ME® robot, including all-weather farm worthiness, a high-performance battery pack and all-weather on-farm battery-swop station, and the software to enable these to operate as efficiently as possible. A robotised tow vehicle for Spikey® would free up farm labour. Because it does not have time constraints, it only needs to travel at 4 km/hr and be only 2m wide.
Just as importantly, the commercialisation of Mini-ME® as a tow vehicle for Spikey® will open up a host of additional on-farm uses for the robotised technology, including soil fertility and moisture assessment, pasture and crop growth and quality assessment, precision application of nutrients, etc. A video of the proof-of-concept Mini-ME® with fitments is shown above.
Click on the files below to see the results of farm trial detection of fresh cow urine patches with Spikey®, and their simultaneous treatment with ORUN® spray.
FLRC 2016 Proceedings; Quin, Bates and Bishop