MacDonald takes to the skies

By Rick Bayne

Tasmanian farmer Duncan MacDonald has taken to the skies and the clouds — both literally and figuratively — in pursuit of innovation.

Mr MacDonald, the winner of a Nuffield Australia 2017 Scholarship, spoke at WestVic Dairy’s 2017 innovation day about how technology is making the farm more profitable.

He’s done traditional updates, such as cup removers, automatic teat spraying and auto-drafting to save on labour, but he’s also introduced drones to monitor pastures and online record keeping.

“I’ve always had an interest in technology and what it can do for our farm,” he said.

The MacDonald farm in north-west Tasmania, about 20 km inland from Burnie, has two 500-cow herds each on about 200 hectares, along with a run-off block.

Drones measuring pasture biomass have had some success, but Mr MacDonald admits their value will only get better as technology develops.

“We’ve had reasonably good indications of pasture biomass but there are some issues with consistency and total accuracy,” he said.

“It depends a bit on where you’re coming from; if you’re not measuring at all and have no information you’re going to be better off. I’ve got no doubt the technology will improve and could be really useful going forward.”

Adopting online centralised farm record keeping has helped to streamline processes.

“Getting everything in one spot has been helpful. We have multiple sources of information from cow and pasture information to OH&S record keeping and have developed our own system using an online form-based service,” Mr MacDonald said.

Mike Waite, LIC, and Matt Aikenhead, ABS, at the WestVic Dairy Innovation Day.

“We have custom forms to suit everything we want to record on our farm and then we feed them into a Google calendar set-up to track it.”

Mr MacDonald said the changes were helping. “It works for our system because I have control over it and I have interest to play with it and make it work. It has taken a lot of onus off paper-based records, which were difficult to content with.”

It’s too early to tell if these changes have made the farm more profitable. “The bottom line from the things we’ve been implementing is difficult to assess,” Mr MacDonald said.

“Things like cup removers and automatic teat spraying to get it down to a one-person unit; I can see a clear labour saving on. Some things like health and safety record keeping I might not see the day-to-day financial benefit but it’s protecting our business from potential liabilities and hopefully minimising risk.”

“We want to see how we can use that data on farm to action and make decisions on.”

Mr MacDonald is continuing research as part of his Nuffield Scholarship, which has already taken him to Brazil, America, Europe, Africa and Ireland.

“It’s been really good to see how Australia sits in the context of world-wide agriculture. I think we’re pretty well placed to have low-cost production and high food-security systems.”