The latest advances in technology, science, engineering, environmental stewardship and business come together on the farm.
In 1964 the University of Waikato was founded on rolling farmland and orchards on the outskirts of Hamilton. More than 50 years later the original farm cowshed remains a permanent feature of the Hamilton campus; an enduring reminder of the University of Waikato’s strong ties with agriculture.
Thoughts of farming might evoke images of gumboots and hard physical labour under the sun - perhaps even the old stereotype ‘brawn over brains’.
But take a closer look and it’s clear that the modern farming environment is anything but simple. The latest advances in technology, science, engineering, environmental stewardship and business come together on the farm, driving national and international success. Constant evolution is key to survival and growth – and the University of Waikato has been a trusted partner for more than 50 years, helping Kiwi farmers to stay one step ahead while also exporting agricultural innovations around the world.
Better, safer crops
In the science lab, University of Waikato researchers are working to support and protect farmers’ livelihoods, identifying new ways to improve crop quality and address environmental threats.
Postgraduate student Danielle Le Lievre is working to improve the taste of the new disease-resistant Zespri kiwifruit variety (known as ‘SunGold’) by looking at how orchard conditions contribute to the gradual accumulation of flavour compounds from flowering to harvest.
Danielle’s project is part of a larger collaboration between the University, Plant & Food Research and Zespri that looks at how sugars, acids and starch are made as the SunGold fruit grows, providing a better understanding of how to grow the best-tasting fruit. The results are already providing new information on how fruit growth responds to orchard management and the environment. That’s good news for growers, exporters and the Christmas pavlova.
University of Waikato Masters student Shannon Hunter is working to protect a much-loved part of breakfasts, burgers and salads around the world, investigating ways to prevent a widespread avocado disease known as root rot. The 2017 recipient of the University of Waikato’s $22,000 New Zealand Agricultural Fieldays Sir Don Llewellyn Scholarship is investigating whether the pathogen that causes avocado root rot is developing resistance to the fungicide currently used to protect avocado trees.
The phosphite fungicide used to manage root rot is widely used across all agricultural sectors for disease management. It is currently being tested for use in protecting kauri and pine, so resistance is a very real and urgent threat.
The NZ Avocado Industry Research Council and Scion are collaborating with Shannon on her research, which involves gathering samples from six avocado orchards in the Bay of Plenty. She says New Zealand’s use of phosphite to manage avocado root rot for more than 25 years means it provides an excellent model system to study fungicide resistance.
Her scholarship will fund a research trip to the USA where she will work with researchers from the University of California, Riverside to test their cultures from avocado orchards and the University of California, Berkeley, to test other important species for phosphite resistance.
Stevie Noe spends most days in a greenhouse collecting and analysing nectar from mānuka plants in order to produce better honey. His Masters research involves measuring how much nectar is produced in the flowers and how its quality changes based on different growing conditions such as temperature, humidity and light.
As part of this, Stevie tests the quality of the nectar based on how much dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is present. DHA converts tomethylglyoxal (MGO) which is the key ingredient that gives mānuka honey its reputed health properties. The more DHA there is in the nectar, the more MGO there will be in the honey.
Stevie’s research has been helped along by two Waikato postgraduate scholarships, as well as Pre-Seed Accelerator Funding (PSAF) from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, testament to the importance of his work to New Zealand’s booming honey industry.
A farm might not be somewhere you’d expect to meet a robot but Professor Mike Duke from the University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering wants to turn robots into everyday farming tools.
Professor Duke and his team are taking robots from factories to fields, using robotics to do everything from picking kiwifruit and asparagus, to planting, lifting and grading pine tree seedlings –back-breaking work that depends on precision and careful handling.
All the while these machines are also collecting data about the crops they’re processing, allowing better decisions to be made about current and future harvests.
Robots will increasingly be used in industries that struggle to attract and retain staff. With New Zealand’s primary industry-linked exports set to double by 2025, there simply aren’t enough humans to keep up with demand.
The introduction of robotics and smart machinery into the country’s primary industries could save farmers and companies money while simultaneously improving safety and quality. And these remarkable machines are just the beginning.
The University team is already looking beyond harvesting machines to robots that will be able to perform jobs such as pollination, weed spraying, thinning, transportation, quality control and pasture repair, further increasing productivity and turning robots into the farmer’s best friend. This particular brand of high-tech Kiwi ingenuity has also found its admirers overseas, with new opportunities to export agricultural robots arising by the day.
Driving success beyond the farm gate
New Zealand is home to some of the world’s best farmers, but making a good living can be a challenge in a highly competitive market. The University’s Management School is training a new generation of agribusiness specialists to help farmers and agricultural businesses to grow their profits and reap the benefits of their hard work.
Agribusiness is the vital link in the chain that takes agricultural products beyond the farm gate and turns them into profits. Students gain an all-round understanding of the agricultural sector, including farm management, soil and nutrient management, rural financial management and banking, and value-chain management.
Agribusiness also looks beyond New Zealand to the possibilities offered by international exports.
Professor of Economics Frank Scrimgeour says that agribusiness dominates New Zealand exports and our largest businesses are in the agribusiness sector.
“It’s a sector with deep connections into the research and development community as agribusiness entrepreneurs develop and apply new technologies which enhance the economic, environmental, and social performance of agri-food systems.”
Agribusiness students learn about international marketing and sales, technological innovations, the impact of free-trade agreements, and how sustainable farming practices can be used to reduce costs and gain a competitive advantage.
Courses are delivered in collaboration with successful companies such as Fonterra, the Tatua Co-operative Dairy Company and DairyNZ, with graduates in high demand by employers.
Dishing the dirt on climate change
Modern farmers recognise that environmental sustainability is key to long-term success. Ground-breaking research by the University of Waikato is helping farmers to be good custodians of the land and waterways they manage.
Researchers are working with the Ministry of Primary Industries and international counterparts around the world to reduce and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions through good farming practices.
A greenhouse gas is any gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are some of the most common types. Farms can be a big source of emissions – peat soils are a significant contributor to soil carbon emissions and methane from sheep and cattle accounts for almost one third of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions – but, with careful management, emissions can be reduced and even eliminated.
In parallel with research to determine the best ways to manage agricultural emissions, Professor Louis Schipper, Associate Professor David Campbell and postdoctoral researcher Dr Susanna Rutledge from the University of Waikato's Environmental Research Institute are part of a major international research project to investigate whether carbon levels in soils can be increased, effectively ‘burying’ (‘sequestering’) and removing carbon from the atmosphere. Varying types of crops may be one way to sequester carbon so the research team is comparing different crops and pastures to determine which mix most effectively increases carbon soil inputs.
With funding from the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, and working in collaboration with Crown Research Institutes Landcare Research, AgResearch and DairyNZ, the team is measuring and comparing carbon exchange at adjacent pasture areas at a dairy farm near Waharoa.
This important work has the potential to support achievement of the Global Sustainable Development Goals, enhance food security and mitigate climate change. It also has the potential to transform farms from producers of greenhouse gases into carbon sinks that help to reduce gases and slow global warming.
Healthy communities, healthy farms
Healthy farms are powered by healthy communities. The University of Waikato works to support the health and wellbeing of rural communities through a range of initiatives.
Professor of Population Health Ross Lawrenson is one of the University’s many passionate advocates for rural health. Amongst other initiatives, he is leading a three-year project to improve early access to lung cancer diagnosis for Māori and rural communities.
Professor Lawrenson says the highest occurrence of cardiovascular disease is in rural towns, and GPs in cities far outweigh those in rural towns per head of population.
To address this problem, the University of Waikato and the Waikato District Health Board have submitted a proposal to the government to establish New Zealand’s third medical school. If the government accepts this proposal, students will be able to enrol as early as 2021.
The Waikato Medical School will focus on enrolling students from vulnerable and rural communities, training a new generation of community-focused doctors and health professionals who understand the needs of rural communities and support their success.