In celebration of 50th Anniversary of the Young Farmer of the Year competition, TracMap’s Founding Director, Colin Brown reflects on the competition’s evolution and the technological advancements made in farming practice in New Zealand.
Back in 1982 I was farming 5000su on a sheep and beef farm in the hill country of South Otago, New Zealand. That year, I decided to enter the Young Farmer of the Year and was fortunate to come away with the win. While attending the recent 50th Anniversary of the competition in Invercargill, I had the opportunity to ponder how much the contest has evolved, as well as how much farming and farming technology has changed since its inception.
In 1969 when Gary Fraser won the first radio quiz, we were still driving 2WD open-cab tractors around our farms, electric fences were confined to dairy farms and cattle break fencing, and we were applying superphosphate costing $24/t at 2cwt/ac (or maybe a bit more if dairying). The first Japanese farm bikes were starting to appear as a mode of transport to replace the tractor, or horses and walking, for getting around.
1977 saw the first real change to the competition, when a practical test was introduced. It was also the year I started farming on my own account. At this time, farm bikes were becoming more commonplace and I recall having a choice of three perennial ryegrass cultivars when sowing out a pasture. The only accepted method of fertilising rolling hill country at this time was the aeroplane.
Television replaced radio in 1981, and the event was broadcast from Trillos nightclub in Auckland. The standard two-wheel motorbikes disappeared and were replaced with three-wheel trikes which allowed us to carry dogs and gear around the farm. Thinking back, those trikes rolled so easily, the only thing that probably saved us from more serious injury was that they were a lot lighter than the quads we use today. We certainly didn’t see any need to wear a helmet!
Electric fencing was now an accepted method of break fencing, and Gallagher had developed the plastic electric fence standard to replace those heavy steel standards that used to always tangle. The only use of computers in farming was for crunching the huge animal genetics databases, we still kept all our farm records in paper diaries. A fax that would work over rural phone lines, and be cheap enough to be justified as a means of communicating with the stock firm, was still in the future.
1996 saw the competition add an Agrisports segment to the practical, with the event expanding to a three day contest to allow for a far broader test of knowledge and skills. Now, when purchasing a ryegrass seed mix to sow there were over thirty cultivars to choose from, and we began using large 4WD trucks to apply fertiliser on our cultivated hills. We were pregnancy scanning our ewes with equipment that matched the sophistication available in hospitals, and many of our dairy cows were now being milked on large rotary platforms, producing more milk than our grandfathers would have ever thought possible.
This was also the year we started hearing about an internet thing, called the world wide web, but it contained so little information that it was only a novelty. The dial up modems to connect to it were so slow that it was of no practical use. The first use of GPS for agriculture had started, with basic guidance equipment in some planes and tractors, but they cost $80,000 each and required a base station to give any level of accuracy and useability.
In 2005 when I started TracMap, superphosphate cost $185/tonne and we were applying far higher rates of super and nitrogen to our pastures than we were back in 1969 when the contest started. We also wanted our fertiliser applied more evenly and effectively, which of course is what triggered TracMap’s creation. In Canterbury and elsewhere farmers were switching to irrigating with centre pivots for the labour saving and improved water efficiency, and the more innovative farmers were using K-Line to get water on rolling ground not suitable for pivots.
Many of us were now carrying cellphones for keeping in touch with staff, the vet, and the stock agent, even if coverage was a bit patchy in places. We used our phones for exactly that, phoning people and sometimes texting, as the first smartphones were still two years away.
So here we are now in 2018, and look how much farming has evolved. Like our kids growing up, we often do not notice the effect of incremental changes in the technology we use on our farms, however the improvements in production per hectare, per animal, and per person over the past 50 years has been remarkable.
The information age has meant that we now base so many more of our decisions and farm inputs on data, not “gut feel” and historical practice, because technology improvements (of which TracMap is but one example) means we can. The difference in farm output, be it measured in lamb meat, milk production, or crop yield, are at levels which the judges of the first 1969 competition would have said was pure fantasy. If you are wondering how much change, just use Google to search the cloud on your smartphone.
So is the Young Farmer of the Year competition tougher than when it started? It is certainly more comprehensive, and therefore I think, a fairer test. Is it harder to win now than when I was fortunate to, way back in 1982? Personally I don’t think so, as whatever the format, competition intensity is a reflection of the number of people you have to head off. The Young Farmer of the Year competition has always been regarded as an elite event attracting the very best there is, and remains so today.
This uniqueness is why the event continues to retain such a following. Perhaps unremarkably, 37 of the previous winners out of a pool of 45 possibles (several have passed away over the years) made the effort to attend the reunion in Invercargill, making for a fabulous event with many memories shared. What is remarkable is that the Otago & Southland regions have produced a total of 30% of the winners, (if you include two who just happened to be living elsewhere in the country at the time they competed). Then again, maybe not, given the calibre of Otago & Southland farmers.. or am I being parochial?