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Putting farm gear to the test

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  • Putting farm gear to the test

    Are you in the market for a new milking plant, a new weigh scale, or a new farm bike? Youíll need to look into the various options and brands, and get some advice. Thereís just one problem Ė youíre almost on your own.

    Despite farming being the biggest business group in the country, covering most of the land area, there is no independent structure for properly evaluating farm equipment and services.

    If you want to compare toasters or vacuum cleaners - no problem - look up your Consumer magazine or website. But for something that can generate real value in your farm business, itís seat-of-the-pants stuff. What is available locally? Where is that ad you read a month ago? What does the neighbour use?

    The best way of evaluating the current offering of equipment for NZ farmers would be to gather functional groups of gear from all available suppliers and test them in similar conditions. I propose something along the lines of the NZ Consumers Institute. There the subscribers pay a fixed fee per year to have regular, technical reports on common consumer items. Results from this comparison are used by the subscribers to help their purchasing decisions, but cannot be used by the suppliers in their advertising.

    Testing of farm equipment on this scale has never been attempted, and certainly would not interest the private sector. Farmers are already paying a fee for industry good matters.

    If CRI or DairyNZ researchers were to evaluate all the tools and equipment already available in the market, I have no doubt that new knowledge would be gained. This might include some major deficiencies in product line-up, gaps in the market, safety issues, product backup and support, etc. The testing could also indicate top examples of market-led equipment, and independently grade products for the first time in terms of payback time (return on investment or ROI), warranty, suitability, reliability, safety, hours saved per year, stock health benefits, staff benefits etc.

    Farmer feedback on products could be sought, and woven into the reports where appropriate. By evaluating an average improvement or reduction in profitability, productivity, animal health, time saving, fuel/energy saving, staff training, safety, and any other factors helped by using the product, researchers could provide a very clear report to help in purchase decision-making.

    Naturally each farm type is different, so care in setting up the model would be required, and particular benefits expanded on. Suggested areas for comparison could be farm software packages, mastitis checkers, pasture meters, bike fittings, tractor implements, electric fence equipment, solar systems, heat recovery, vacuum pump controllers, automation equipment, electronic devices, farm broadband systems, irrigators, cattle handlers, dehorning systems, calf feeders, cup removers, flow meters, pulsators, post hole rammers, in-shed feeders, EID readers, weighscales etc.

    Itís more than a comparison of brands: which type of equipment purchase is likely to produce the best financial return?

    Another option for expensive items would be to provide a technical before-and-after report on the results farmers achieve when installing or using new equipment. Following along with the successful Consumer model, the suppliers of any goods shown wanting would have some right of redress before the report was published.

    DairyNZ and CRIs have the staff and the broad funding base to provide this evaluation service, and quickly roll out the findings to farmers. If the cost benefits from known under-utilised equipment were added up and applied to the farming sector of NZ, I am sure it would quickly amount to many hundreds of millions (if not billions) of extra annual income nationwide.

    Every farmer should demand that their industry-good body makes an effort in the area of vetting equipment on behalf of their levy-payers. Letís see some action.
    Graham Lynch

  • #2
    Among comments made on this idea when it was first proposed in the Rural Network blog (2008) was the following:

    I have talked to many people and organisations (Fed Farmers, Connsumer Institute, Dexcel as in DairyNZ, politicians of all colors, farming leaders) over the years about the need for an independent body to test products used by farms (esp. Fertilisers, cultivars and animal heath remedies) . No one it appears wants a bar of it -where do you find the money, legal problems, political reason (ie let the market decide) etc, etc, etc?.
    I personally think something like this is needed and it is the proper role of the state - to set standards for the good of all. Think education think medicine. But my views on this are seen as socialism in disguise and so in the abscence of other options I have put my hand up (at least in the fertiliser area) and said: well if no one else will do it - damit I will. That was where the Fertiliser Review started.
    It is possible that as agKnowledge grows and in particular develops a reputation for sound impartial advice that people will come to us more and more for independent advice and asseement. This is certainly starting to happen albeit in a narrow but important area of fertiliser.
    But agknowledge Ltd does not have the legal protection that say the Consumer Institute does under its trust deed. Thus we have to run the gauntlet of the defamation laws every day. We also need to make a profit unlike the Not-For-Profit Consumer Institute model.
    In the mean time I have a dollar each way - the more confusion out there the more work I get. The less confusion the better we are as a nation. Cute…. eh?
    Doug Edmeades | August 11, 2008 |

    Wanted: Impartial Grass Tests - Dairy Exporter, August 08, pg 126
    David Kerr from Germinals Seeds proposed months ago that we install an independent grass testing body, as they have in the UK.
    “On just about every farm I visit there’s the same problem, a pile of seed company pamphlets in the mail but little impartial advice except from some field reps for some of the seed retailers.”
    I spoke to Bruce Thorrold at DairyNZ the other day: apparently my idea (above) is a bit tricky to implement, a bit of a minefield. They’d rather not go there. DairyNZ prefer to supply their own software and implementation tools in the form of manuals and prescriptions, charts etc. I agree that’s “safe” and easier.

    But his next comment was that farmers are running a big business (agreed), so are obviously clever enough to make their own decisions on products, and they have the supply stores staff assisting as well. I know from experience selling goods into this sector, that the store staff turnover is high, and not to expect technical advice from them on (possibly important) niche products. And just like all of us, farmers are not experts at everything. Jack of all trades = master of none.

    I’ve thought about it - this attitude from Industry Good bodies is not good enough. They collect levies from farmers, in the interests of improving the profitability of farming. We all know this ‘vetting of products’ idea would reap immediate massive rewards for the farming sector. And while they collect these levies, no-one else could set up a business in NZ comparing products, because no farmer would pay for the service. Naturally enough, they would squawk about how they’re already paying for research.

    If you’re reading this, and you’re a farmer, please place feedback. Am I on the money here or not?
    Graham Lynch | July 23, 2008 |

    The singular advantage that Consumer Organisation has had through its entire 40 odd years is that it is an independent body, funded by optional membership with no commercial ties anywhere. It has never struck me that DairyNZ is in any way equivalent, despite its levy funding, which isn’t optional, even if voted on.
    Not only that, but lets get practical. Consumer may be able to afford to anonymously buy TVs and washing machines to test, but how would any independent testing organisation compare harvesters, or tractors. Where would the money come from? And if it isn’t done anonymously then what value do the test results have? Sue Edmonds | July 24, 2008 |
    Consumer struggles to provide the current services with its subscriptions income, and often uses reports from a sister organisation in Aussie. I like the way they work, and many aspects suit reporting on farm equipment, especially the smaller gear.

    ..There’s no need to buy the equipment anonymously, most suppliers would donate a production unit, or lend one if it’s large or expensive. You also don’t have to destroy an item to find out if it’s any good. Very big or fixed equipment could be checked out once installed on a farm. A selection of farmer feedback could be sought here.

    In my area of work, I don’t pay levies based on my output, whether it’s profitable or not (well OK, there is GST). I’m sure farmers want Industry Good output they can relate to, and can quickly use to make more profit, and save effort. These reports would go down well with farmers, it’s a win-win for all concerned.
    By the way, Consumer runs on $6million p.a. of subs, DairyNZ uses $54million of levies, plus FORST and other income.
    Graham Lynch | July 24, 2008 |

    Sue wrote:
    And if it isn’t done anonymously then what value do the test results have?
    It’s a common misconception that manufacturers with a lean profit margin are happy about putting out inferior product for very long. In fact, they’d be out of that business fairly fast. Especially in NZ, you can’t have loose ends with your customers. I would think that if the manufacturer or supplier was to be approached directly by this new farm product champion, there would be forms to fill out, including warranties that the product sample was not unique, but a representation of normal output. And they’d also ask for some end user references, both through the supplier, and using their own resources. It’s most likely that these references would be where the more exciting research findings would be uncovered.
    Graham Lynch | July 27, 2008 |

    Graham, fellow Dig ‘n’ Stir blogger Doug Edmeades has also argued the case for a consumer watchdog for farmers as has fellow scientist John Roche, now back at DairyNZ. I quoted them in a Farmers Weekly column in 2007: “In terms of the big three inputs that go into the farm – animal health, cultivars, fertiliser – there is no one for farmers to turn to who is independent of the advice being offered by the sellers.” They agreed with you that “the advice that farmers get in technical areas is invariably coupled with the sale of the product. Therefore, how objective is that technical advice?” Obviously the answer is “not very”. At the time Edmeades suggested a trust could gather funds from farmers and possibly other organisations to support individual’s taking actions through the courts and so on. I also spoke to then Consumers Institute Director David Russell. He said the tide had turned against farmers. Some years ago the institute looked at assistance for the farming community including the feasibility of publishing a special magazine. But so much support was available to farmers at the time that the idea was shelved. That was in the days of producer boards. “It’s really not the case now,” Russell said. “It’s quite the reverse now.”
    The degree of scientific examination required to evaluate many farming products meant it could only be funded collectively, he said.
    Consumer would be happy to enter into an arrangement but would need financial backing to to do it. “We’d be happy to listen, to talk, and to discuss with the farming community what their needs were and if there was sufficient financial backing we’d be in there.” So, Graham, it seems like there are others who agree with you about the need for a farmer consumer watchdog and are willing to do something about it. It’d be great to get some more comment from farmers here about what they need and how they think it could be funded and by whom.
    Philippa Stevenson | July 28, 2008 |
    Philippa, thanks for that information. I spoke to another research leader at DairyNZ today, and brought up this topic. “No way” was the very quick response. This person was immediately presuming that as soon a report was written, they would be getting sued by the suppliers who didn’t get a good mention.

    Well, join the real world! Every farm goods supplier, no matter what they sell, has to abide by the govt rules for commercial trading, and could be sued by anyone they deal with if things went wrong. Guess what - it doesn’t stop us trying to improve our products and increase market share. But in any case, suppliers would be comfortable with any report as long as there is a right of redress before publication. Just play fair.

    People are missing the point. It’s not just a farm consumer watchdog I’m proposing: these reports would also point out some huge advantages when using the products. In a category there might be say three products, all of which are really useful, and the quality and prices might be similar. The important thing is that farmers know what the brands are, where they can get them, and how much value they might be to their operation.
    As for funding: if these reports are as useful as I think they would be, all of the Industry Good outfits could ultimately just levy a bit extra to cover it, or reallocate some other spending on research or extension effort. Those mechanisms are already in place, why start something new?
    Graham Lynch | July 28, 2008 |
    Graham Lynch


    • #3
      Here's the funding?

      Some of the 'research work' and 'information transfer for faster innovation' would line up with the above proposal for testing and reporting on existing offerings. Have a look at the GrassMaster thread: I'm not too sure smaller suppliers in NZ will see any benefit from this new allocation. I'd like to be proved wrong.

      How does that Pink Floyd song go? (Money)
      "I'm all right Jack, keep your hands off-a my pie"
      Graham Lynch


      • #4
        I presented two short seminars at the National Fieldays in Mystery Creek in June 2011, after being invited by the University of Waikato. These are not normally well attended, but I did enjoy putting together some thoughts and a Powerpoint presentation with help from Mark Benseman and Martin Day at work. A Waikato Times journalist followed up one aspect of the seminar, questioned other parties, and this article appeared in the Waikato Times on Friday 24th June 2011.

        The article is a great start, as it might get some feedback going. The reply from DairyNZ's section leader Dr Bruce Thorrold was predictable and disappointing (still waiting for a reply to my February 2010 research request by the way Bruce). Testing hayrakes and tractors - might be a bit boring and an unknown to a scientist, farmers might not think so.

        What about a smaller item like our unique Batt-latch timer that costs $395 as a capital cost, and might be able to save up to 65% of lameness and up to 450 hours of work a year on 10,000 dairy farms, would that be worth researching for the common good? It's not on a big enough scale? It's not in your brief? It's not what farmers are wanting you to get done? It would take too long? You don't have anyone capable of doing that? You think levy payers would say it was a bad idea when you ask for levies to be voted on? What about the hundreds of other (even better) products and services that you could test and report on?

        Or is it simply not a leading-edge piece of research, and the outfit in question is not going to front up with at least $50,000 to cover DiaryNZ's costs? This is a new revelation for me. An ex-AgResearch scientist from Ruakura told me recently that their scientists will not even pick up a pen unless the external business wanting research done was going to stump up with at least $50,000. There is another aspect: "Publish or Perish". Scientists eyeball a project to see if they could publish a paper on it, and it needs to be suitable for one of the better journals. Give them the cash and a leading edge problem, and you might see some action.

        Of course, they will never tell you that in the first place. They might murmur about looking for govt funds to help, or piggybacking with another project. But the other parties in any project won't want anyone else riding along, so only the bigger outfits with enough capital to spare, get their research done and branded with AgResearch or DairyNZ. Firms like Pioneer, CDAX, Ballance, Gallagher Group, Waikato Milking, to name a few. I have no argument with them getting their research done. But they are pushing higher-cost or volume products and services that have a big market both here and overseas, so they have economy of scale. Smaller products that mainly suit NZ farming will not interest the big players, but that doesn't mean that they are not hugely important to our nation's agricultural sector.

        So who will provide the research needs and industry support for these smaller firms that have already begun selling good equipment to farmers - they are well past the "invention" stage, they have developed a product - but with a limited market, are struggling to make a profit in that sector. That restricts their marketing efforts. The farmers who have picked up that equipment will be doing far better than the manufacturer, especially if you add up their individual improved profits and saved costs. Those same farmers (and many others who will not be sharing the benefits because they are not properly informed about these products, so aren't using them) are already paying levies on their production, to allow centralised industry-good research to be done.

        The Fieldays Innovation area was busy this year, with plenty of entries in the Invention and Equipment categories for the judging team. I have been a member of both teams: we are not paid to be judges, there are no forms to fill out as to liability or otherwise, and we did our best to judge the entries in terms of safety, fit to the job, likely commercial chances, benefit to farmers etc. All this in just a few minutes of observing the product, and a round table discussion later. Some manufacturers have assumed an award from this competition to mean that their product is beyond compare, safety vetted, and will be easy to market. No, that is not the case. Farmers will purchase and test the product tentatively, request backup, supply new improvement ideas, and start to recommend the product to others in their location, as long as the manufacturer hangs in there. After several years the product might gain momentum, depending on the marketing spend and the benefits to farmers. In the Batt-Latch case, this process has taken 15 years.

        DairyNZ's income p.a. is $60million or more, much of it siphoned off the dairy cheque or govt taxes, while Consumer NZ's is $6million by voluntary subscription. There is no excuse for Bruce Thorrold's attitude, even if it is backed up by Tim Mackle (ex Fonterra). If this work is not done by the likes of DairyNZ, NZ farmers will continue to operate well below their possible productivity and profitability, all for a lack of a low-cost, practical, research and advisory function on specialised equipment and services.
        Graham Lynch


        • #5
          At National Fieldays in June 2012, a supplier gave me an insight into one of the reasons technology uptake on most dairy farms is far lower than it should be.

          (As background, I know of dairy farms where time has virtually stood still for 20 years, and the DairyNZ Greenfield project down the road was decommissioned after the scientists finally discovered that, far from looking at robotic milkers, many farmers hadn't started using automatic teat sprayers, ACRs, pump controllers, smaller automation equipment).

          This supplier was selling cheap gear that had a two year payback, and would save on power costs in the milking plant. They have difficulty selling it to dairy farms, the main type of farm it suits. The reason? This gear is part of the dairy plant, a fixture and fitting, an asset that has to stay with the farm once installed. Read on.

          The farm owner will often be using a contractor or a sharemilker to provide the labour end of the operation, and they will supply some mobile equipment like bikes and tractors, and in the case of sharemilkers, the cows. In return the contractor/sharemilker will receive a portion of the milk cheque each season.

          As part of the contract, the party milking the cows will pay all of the dairy plant power, and all or some of other major overheads like vet bills, fertiliser, bought in feed, vat grades.

          There is intense competition for these jobs each year, with many wanting to start on the rungs of farm ownership.

          So back to this bit of gear that is easily installed as part of other plant (that has to be there on the farm anyway). If there is a contractor or sharemilker on the farm, they will need to be very confident that they'll be working on the property for a few years to come, before they'll buy an asset which will benefit them in the short term, and will ultimately end up as part of the farm owner's assets. The farm owner sees no need to buy anything which will save power in the milking plant, as it's not their problem.

          Net result: a drag on the grid as most dairy farmers use more electricity than they need to, the farmer and the contractor earn less profit than they should, and the manufacturer of a good product is left scratching his head.

          Which left me wondering: how many other products are not picked up on dairy farming platforms, because of this delicate issue? You can't guarantee that relationships between the farm owner and the contractor/sharemilker will be good enough for them to sit down and work out a deal which will benefit all parties. But we are talking about a very big negative clamp on dairy farm productivity if this crazy system is allowed to continue.
          Graham Lynch


          • #6
            Here's an article Roger Martyn (Australia) spotted for me.


            One very interesting section of that article says that a farm that barely supported a husband and wife team, now has six full-time staff and "buzzes with science". They tried new ideas, especially forage like Lucerne that could survive droughts, and now have a more sustainable business.

            Integrate into change - is the main message.
            Graham Lynch