3. MacManus: A cow-whispering fitbit

Halter founder Craig Piggott

Newsroom's Technology columnist Richard MacManus dives into New Zealand's thriving agri-tech sector to find a cow-whispering fitbit backed by Rocketlab's Peter Beck, Peter Thiel and Stephen Tindall.

The big farming news of the year so far has been an outbreak of the mycoplasma bovis disease, which forced the government to come up with an $886 million eradication plan last month. But as this month’s Fieldays event showed, it’s not all bad news in our farming sector. When it comes to farm technology – or “agritech” as it’s known – New Zealand is a global leader.

A new report by Callaghan Innovation claims that “New Zealand is seen as one of four locations to watch for agritech solutions alongside Silicon Valley, Boston, and Amsterdam.”

I reached out to several agritech experts to find out why New Zealand is so well regarded internationally. We have a deep history of agriculture in this country, but it requires more than a pair of gumboots and the clichéd “number 8 wire” attitude to create advanced farming technology.

Amanda Gilbertson, Science Manager at farming co-operative Ballance, thinks New Zealand is good at agritech because “there is a strong relationship between primary industry and science” here.

“We are not tech-bros in a city trying to solve problems we know nothing about,” Gilbertson told me. “Most of New Zealand has some kind of connection to the land and still understand where their food comes from.”

Another important factor, says Gilbertson, is the support the entrepreneurial ecosystem offers to local agritech startups.

“We have hackathons like the Power of Plants, an excellent agritech accelerator called Sprout and incubators such as WNT Ventures, Astrolabe and Powerhouse Ventures who have all invested into agritech companies.”

Peter Wren-Hilton, from the recently formed Agritech New Zealand organisation, echoed these views.

“New Zealand’s strength is based on the science that is generated out of our universities and Crown Research Institutes, ” he said. He also thinks our farming sector “adopts new technology more quickly than in many other countries.” He attributes this partly to having no agritech subsidies, but more importantly having “an emerging start-up ecosystem that can iterate quickly on-farm and is often driven by deep domain knowledge.”

And farmers themselves?

It’s all very well having top notch agritech entrepreneurs and a supportive startup ecosystem, but how are the farmers themselves adapting to digital technologies?

John Hart is an organic sheep and beef farmer from Wairarapa (as well as a Green Party candidate at the last election). He’s concerned about our farming demographic getting older and what that might mean for the future of agritech.

“We keep hearing from farming leaders that the skills our future farmers need are more heavily weighted towards digital skills,” Hart told me. The skills he’s referring to are things like consuming and analysing data, driving tech-enabled machinery, utilising apps and cloud-based systems, and using sensors and drones.

“We have to build these skills into the next generation of farmers,” Hart said. “The single largest impediment to future innovation in agritech will be the lack of human capital.”

A 'cowgorithim' for a fit-bit for cows

Perhaps it will take young entrepreneurs like Halter’s Craig Piggott to help young farmers jump on board the digital revolution. In an email interview, Piggott said his team had been travelling up and down the country, “spending a massive amount of time on other farms, talking and shadowing farmers to truly understand how we can help them make their farms more productive.”

Halter’s product is a cow collar that lets farmers track and move their herds. Yes, it’s a cow wearable – a bit like a Fitbit, if Fitbit not only tracked your activity data but controlled your movement using audio cues from the collar. Last October, Halter raised NZ$8 million from a series of Silicon Valley VC firms, including Peter Thiel's Founders Fund, and New Zealand's own K1W1 owned by Stephen Tindall. Another Halter investor is Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck, who has also helped mentor 23-year old Piggott.

I asked Piggott how Halter is spending the $8m funding windfall.

“We’ve been primarily focused on testing the technology on cows,” he replied, adding that the company owns a farm in the Waikato for this purpose. “After thousands of hours of testing, we’re now at a point where we believe we have more control over a cow’s movement than any other machine or human.”

Halter’s product sounds impressive, but there’s plenty of international competition in this market. A recent Wall St Journal report noted that Agersens (Australia), Vence (California) and Nofence (Norway) are all working on similar products.

Piggott acknowledged the competition, but said Halter was different. “Unlike others, we are focused on building a product for the dairy industry initially,” he said. “This requires a higher level of control over each cow’s movements due to the intensive nature of a dairy farm operation.”

Piggott said Halter achieves this level of control through its patented “cowgorithm” technology, which he said “leverages artificial intelligence.”

Another local agritech startup touting AI is Regen, which offers software to monitor farm irrigation systems. According to a Callaghan white paper, Regen plans to add machine learning to its product offering to help with predictive modelling.

I contacted Regen CEO Bridgit Hawkins to find out when this AI functionality will be deployed.

“The feature is still in development,” Hawkins replied, “and we plan to test the output in late 2018, with the aim to deploy within the product in 2019.”

As to how the machine learning will benefit their irrigation customers, Hawkins said it would give them “the ability to look forward and have a reasonable estimation of how soil temperature might move up or down.” The data the machine uses to make this estimation will include previous soil measurements and forecast weather – particularly frosts or rain.

Halter and Regen are just two of the promising agritech companies in New Zealand. According to Wren-Hilton from Agritech NZ, there are many others out there. What’s more, he thinks our startups “compare very favourably with companies at the same stage offshore.”

We’re particularly strong “in developing solutions for pastoral farming and horticulture systems,” he said.

So the future is bright for agritech in this country. That is, as long as we also produce a bumper crop of new young farmers to use the technologies.