Farm Systems & Environment

Big data poised to transform farming

8 November 2019
Big data poised to transform farming

Big data. Two words we hear much about. But what do they really mean? And do they have any relevance to the agriculture sector?

AgResearch senior data scientist, Jeremy Bryant, to the latter says a resounding yes.

The research institute is using big data to explore new ways of working including a multidisciplinary programme called the New Zealand Bioeconomy in the Digital Age.

An objective of the programme is to encourage researchers to “fail fast or find early wins”.

“Previously, we’ve had longer horizons for research but NZBIDA is about learning and being directed a little bit more by rapid proof of concept findings and using an agile way of working.

“And we’re looking at novel ways to use data whether it be from the farm or a supply chain and figuring out the best way to organize and analyse it with big data technology.

“You’ll be familiar with gigabytes and megabytes; big data is getting into the range of what they call peta and exabyte. It’s huge data – it might be billions or millions of records.

“So, it needs a lot of computing power.”

Farm sensors are storing and sending an array of information and new technologies like virtual fencing technology need computing capacity.

In one project, they are combining data with records of past reproduction records and sickness to predict when an animal was at most risk of failing to cycle prior to mating start date.

“So, instead of getting to mating and finding the animal hasn’t cycled, you may be able to get a prediction two or three months out and make some sort of management intervention, whether it’s once-a-day milking or different feeding, to try and stop it from going over the cliff of reproduction.”

While the potential of big data is enormous, it also had its challenge. It can help me informed decision and change mindsets. But a sensor might be sending data every minute and the volume could become huge over time.

Bryant said while regular satellite tracking might make it possible to capture numerous images and associated data “pulses”, a farmer would probably only want to see snapshots in time.

“Typically, it comes in like a tidal wave and you can’t stop it. You’ve then got to say, okay, we’re getting this information every minute, so, really, I only want to aggregate it for an average for the day. That’s giving me the best insight for what’s happening for that animal at that time, or for the pasture.”

Research’s push into digital technology was financed by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), through a Strategic Investment Fund.