Data sharing needed to farm sustainably

Whether its belching bovines blamed for contributing to climate change, stock access to waterways or the diffuse challenge of nitrate leaching, farming systems in New Zealand are under the microscope.

Some recalcitrant individuals have been notable in recent publicity for embarrassingly poor animal welfare or repeated environmental breaches that the rest of the industry shake their heads at. Despite this, most farmers I have met see themselves as guardians or caretakers of the land for future generations. They show me with their substantial investments in dairy effluent systems or their planting of gullies and hill-country sidings.

These activities are excellent and essential – but of course not sufficient by themselves. Farming systems are complex, and there are many levers that need to be pulled – and micro-adjusted – in order to create farms that are sustainable and profitable.

Tools such as OVERSEER® allow farmers and their advisors to consider some of the many and complex adjustments that can be made, and see what (if any) impact changes might have on the environmental sustainability of the farm system. Other tools such as Farmax® are excellent for building operating models of the farm system to see what changes are feasible and to assess the financial impact of changes. It can be very hard for farmers to adjust their practices if they fear it will take away their living.

These tools and many others are hungry for data. It is not unknown to use 300 different inputs (numbers and choices) to define a farm system for one of these models. Keeping records of farm operations to provide auditable evidence requires even more data. Precision farm maps are another whole level of data again. It’s no wonder that farmers roll their eyes and tell me “there must be a better way!”

We think there has to be a better way too. For the last couple of years the New Zealand industry has been working to standardise the vocabulary that technicians and software developers use to describe the many data points. A standardised description for data (see farmdatastandards.org.nz) allows organisations and tools to ask consistent questions and re-use data that others have collected. It has been an essential first-step to solving the data challenge.

The next step is getting underway. A group of organisations are moving towards sharing the data that their devices and systems have collected – and doing this based on directions and permissions from the farmer. We hope that this approach will allow data collected on-farm by different providers to be used in models such as OVERSEER and Farmax (and even shared between the two).

For farmers who need to prove compliance with rules and standards, aggregating data from existing systems will reduce overheads – and it will hopefully result in more timely and accurate reporting too.

If we believe that it is possible to balance farming’s impact on the environment, and still make it possible for farmers and their families to earn a living, then we must deliver tools that support such decision making – and reduce the overhead of wrangling data.

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