Callaghan conflicts of interest stymie funding for agritech aimed at reducing nitrate leaching

Bert Quin and Geoff Bates teamed up in 2013 to form Pastoral Robotics.

The founders of a company aimed at solving what they say is the single biggest threat to New Zealand dairy farming – nitrate leaching into waterways from cow urine – are looking for $3 million in investment backing after conflicts of interest saw them turned down for government research and development funding.

Bert Quin and Geoff Bates teamed up in 2013 to form Pastoral Robotics, which has developed a way of dealing with both nitrate leaching and greenhouse gas emissions that arise from the high urea content of urine patches.

After the cows leave the paddock, their prototype Spikey is towed over the ground and its metal spikes detect changes in the electrical properties of the soil caused by the presence of urine. It then only sprays recent urine patches, meaning typically just 5%  of the pasture has to be sprayed which is a huge saving in chemicals. It also promotes more grass growth which means additional revenue for the farmer.

They have spent around $700,000, including the value of their time, developing the prototype to its present stage but need more funding to continue R&D work.

They had an application for a Callaghan project grant rejected last year, which Mr Bates puts down to concerns over conflicts of interest given Mr Quin is a brother of Callaghan chief executive Mary Quin and that Mr Bates also then worked for the funding agency. However, Mr Bates says the technical assistance they've received and paid for from Callaghan scientists has been critical in Spikey's development.

Mr Quin, a former soil scientist, first discovered the transformation of cow urine into nitrates in the 1970s. Pastoral Robotics was formed out of a chance meeting between the pair when Mr Bates, then sector manager for agritech at IRL (Callaghan's predecessor) was developing a proposal for a robot tanker vehicle to collect and distribute dairy shed effluent and cow-home waste. Mr Quin, the founder and managing director of fertiliser company Summit-Quinphos was researching the viability of using a device fitted to cows to automatically treat urine patches activated by the cow raising its tail.

They came up with the idea of using a small fitment, or trailer, that could be towed by a farm vehicle to daily detect and spray cow urine patches after grazing. Additional funding last year from the NZ Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre allowed the company to test Spikey on a range of farms and soils conditions across the country. Quin said that work showed the average daily farm could make around $15,000-20,000 annually from extra grass produced from the process.

The AGGRC is also funding research headed by Landcare Research into how New Zealand could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by manipulating de-nitrification in pasture soils, using Pastoral Robotics' Orun spray and others. Experiments so far have shown the country's dairy-grazed pasture has wide variations of nitrate levels.

In August, Pastoral Robotics, which is jointly owned and funded by Messrs Bates and Quin, will begin on-farm trials with Spikey on the best sprays and nozzle applications to treat the urine patches.

Mr Bates said that work is expected to take about a year at which stage they're hopeful regional councils will consider adding Spikey into the Overseer programme which would give farmers credits on the nitrate levels they need to achieve under new consenting processes. "That's our long-term goal and if that happens, the business will take off," Mr Bates said.

The company has also developed eight metre wide wings that widen Spikey's spread and are working on a towing harrower and fertiliser spreader. It's also still working with Massey University on an agricultural robot, Mini-ME, that would drive itself around the paddock doing the spraying of urine patches to free the farmer for other work.

Mr Bates said further investment would help progress that R&D work, which is more capital intensive than the towed Spikey they're hoping to have on the market by next year for around $40,000 per unit.


BusinessDesk receives funding to help cover the commercialisation of innovation from Callaghan Innovation.

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