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Hi-tech cattle stall aims for better herds

Individual animals get nutrition they need thanks to a computerised feeding system.

Calfsmart is the brainchild of Ben Neal, a 35-year-old mechanical engineer who grew up on a dairy farm in Dannevirke.

After discovering shortfalls in calf-feeding operations while on holiday in Denmark seven years ago, Neal set about producing a «more efficient system» to help New Zealand’s dairy sector rear their calves more successfully.

«Due to my dairy background I was keen to learn how the industry was working over there. I was seeing these European products being imported into New Zealand in an attempt to fit New Zealand farming practices – which they did not do well.»

Calfsmart is a four-stall feeding system designed to produce better-quality herds, faster. An ear tag antenna identifies each calf as it enters the stall and the Calfsmart system automatically dispenses a custom feed recipe.

Farmers can measure the progress of their herd or any individual calf and alter their feed portions throughout the day to ensure all their calves get the nutrition they need.

The confidential and secure data is collected and delivered wirelessly to a smartphone or home computer.

«It’s all about animal welfare. With the data we get from each machine we can really build a picture of the health of an individual calf and chart its progress through the rearing period,» says Neal.

Automated feeding also reduces labour time and feed costs and, ultimately, ensures no calf is left out, he says.

«Our machines are Kiwi engineered and robustly designed for New Zealand’s farms and weather conditions. The technology is ours and the system is basically a league above what’s currently out there.»

Calfsmart is also designed for larger-scale rearing operations – scalable up to 2000 calves – whereas most other systems only feed up to about 200 calves, says Neal. Neal explains each dairy farmer has a different strategy for rearing calves and believes the technology can advance best practice.

It’s taken 18 months to get the system to market, but it’s now available and the fledgling company is gearing up for an official launch.

Helping Calfsmart every step of the way has been Building Clever Companies (BCC – formerly The Bio Commerce Centre) in Palmerston North, which supplied office facilities, mentoring and marketing training. It also arranged pre-seed and seed investment funding of $160,000, after Neal received a no-obligation government grant of $25,000 to assist with building a prototype stall.

Larry Ellison, a BCC member and director and investor in Calfsmart, says: «In November 2013, I was asked to visit Ben to appraise the idea for Calfsmart and conduct due diligence to see if it was a worthwhile business opportunity, as we do with all potential investments. I was bowled over by his ideas and passion. It really ticked all the boxes for us.» The dairy industry represents a quarter of New Zealand’s exports, and Calfsmart has the potential to be a real game changer worldwide, he says.

Extracting and using data to optimise rearing programmes is an exciting proposition, says Alan Cockrell from the Manawatu Investment Group (MIG), an angel (early-stage) investment group managed by BCC. «From an investor point of view, what we are really interested in is the data we can gather over time. This gives us a lot of IP (intellectual property) advantages and that’s where we see the significant benefits. The system and the data will hopefully be able to be exported worldwide.» Nobody’s doing agribusiness like we are in New Zealand, adds Cockrell.

«So the export potential for our dairy sector is huge. Ben was clever enough to find all this out before setting up Calfsmart. He just needed some support and structure on how to do it.»

• Produced in conjunction with the Angel Association of New Zealand.


Date: Apr 23, 2015                                                             Source: TheNewZelandHerald