A very sharp solution to a big problem has its first demo
Spikey® is a very innovative solution to the serious problem of leaching of nitrate-nitrogen from cow urine patches on grazed pastures by Pastoral Robotics Ltd, a member of Group ONE.
Excess nitrogen (N) in pasture and feed is excreted by the cow mainly as urea-N in the urine. This urea-N gets converted, firstly by an enzyme and then by soil bacteria into ammonium-N then nitrate-N. This is the form of N preferentially taken up by plant roots, but the problem is that the amount of N returned to the soil in the small areas affected by urine is far greater than the pasture can usually recover. Much of the nitrate-N, which is highly water-soluble, gets leached through the soil by rainfall and irrigation. It finds its way into groundwater, streams, rivers and lakes, where it contributes to weed growth and algal blooms. Nitrate-N in drinking water is a precursor to carcinogens and has been linked with deaths in young children.
If a solution to this problem is not found, dairy farms will either have to reduce stocking rates and farmer incomes, or put considerable capital resources anf ongoing maintenance and management in housing cows in sheds, from where the effluent can be collected and spread evenly over the entire farm. This would represent the end of year-round grazed dairy farming as we know it in New Zealand, and are known for it the world over. So there is a real problem.
PRL directors Geoff Bates and Bert Quin believe that the solution to this problem is provided by Spikey®, the result of two years intensive research and development by the agritech engineer and soil fertility scientist, both of whom have strong business skills as well.
Spikey® is basically a combination of a considerable number of spiked metal wheels on an axle which detect individual fresh cow urine patches (up to several days old) by measuring the surface soil conductivity at very small intervals. It is currently towed across the pasture by quad bike or ute, but ultimately it is intended for this to be done by the small robotised vehicle Mini-ME® currently under development by Pastoral Robotics Ltd. Spikey® detects then sprays any fresh urine patches with a proprietary combination of totally safe products which are already widely in use applied to pastures for other purposes; all have proven to be totally safe environmentally.
Both technologies had their first on-farm technical demonstrations to an audience of leading nitrogen and the environment researchers on January 23. Both technologies performed right up to the expetations of PRL, and promoted lively discussion. It was agreed than testing of the Spikey® technology in a grazed dairy farm situation where nitrate leaching could be monitored was the ideal next step.
Then, on February 12, Geoff Bates will be presenting their results to an audience of over 200 scientists, advisors, regional council staff and farmers at Massey University’s FLRC Conference.
Dr Quin believes that the net cost of detection and treatment would be very easily negated by combining the technology with switching from granular urea as the main source of fertiliser N to ONEsystem® . This utilises spray technology to wet prilled urea, treated with the urease inhibitor nbpt. Independently-run trials under grazing as shown a massive reduction of 50% in the amount of N required to grow a given amount of extra grass.