Innovation saving precious time, and money
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Innovation saving precious time, and money

Category Client Stories

Darcy McAlpine

Image by CheekyMac Productions

There are few things worth more than a thriving business, but for dairy farmer Darcy McAlpine, his time is just as valuable as his bottom line.

And the Victorian is fast clawing back precious hours thanks to state-of-the-art ‘smart boxes’ recently installed across the family-run operation – the physical labour savings proving just as significant as the financial savings.

“Money is good, but time is our most precious resource in dairy, so we’re always looking at ways to ‘buy’ ourselves a few extra hours,” Darcy said.

Working together with brother Clancy and father Paul, the family recently connected 4 AEI ‘Smart Boxes’ to pumps and irrigators which read and forecast the electricity markets’ ‘live-pricing’, allowing for automated pumping during the cheapest predicted pricing timeframe during a 24-hour period.

The McAlpines were approached by the developer some time ago, however Darcy admits he ‘mulled-over’ the decision until now, purely because the technology sounded too good to be true.

And with the smart boxes now fully operational, he said the innovation had well and truly met, if not exceeded, expectations.

“We receive a live feed on how much we’re spending, and when to access the most cost efficient power, but it’s the amount of time we’re saving that has been the real eye-opener,” Darcy said.

“You just don’t realise how much time you spend during the day checking pumps are still running or flicking them on and off, now it’s all on an app on my phone, and I have around four extra hours in my day to do jobs I otherwise didn’t get a chance to do.”

Installation of the technology took just six weeks, and was carried out by the developer without any major setbacks.

The family’s 500 head dairy is set on 400 hectares in the Gippsland region, with another 200 hectares leased nearby, with irrigation infrastructure a feature of the operation.

The irrigation network of five centre pivots and one lateral irrigator are run in three grids, and Darcy said the smart boxes would greatly ease irrigation management – particularly considering he was already manually co-ordinating pumps to run during off-peak time frames, despite the inconvenience.

“Trudging out in the dark, cold night to turn on pumps after dinner was wearing a bit thin, and it would always be a race after milking to get the pump on by 8am, but now it’s all done automatically and it’s an enormous weight off my shoulders.”

And as heavy energy users – pulling water straight out of the ground – Darcy believes the cost savings will create enormous interest across their region, and beyond.

So inspired are the McAlpines, they’re now looking to trial moisture metres that would use artificial intelligence to automatically start and stop pumps based on soil moisture levels, removing any need for human input.

Darcy McAlpine

Image by CheekyMac Productions

“After the success of our smart boxes, we’re certainly no longer sceptical of new technology – we’re on a roll!”

And, admitting his father had always been ahead of the game – ‘a little too progressive at times’, he laughed – forward-thinking is in the blood.

Paul McAlpine purchased his first 100 hectares 24 years ago – a ‘scrubby bush block’ he cleared to develop his first dairy.

Gradually expanding over the past two decades, the family most recently bought a neighbouring block in 2017, acquiring much of its irrigation infrastructure with the purchase.

The operation currently has an excess of water that could irrigate a further 50 hectares, and as such the McAlpines’ are looking to further grow their holding in the near future.

“We’re leasing, and hoping to buy, which seems to be the most successful model behind land purchases across this region at the moment,’ Darcy said.

Previous innovations implemented to further facilitate growth include the development of a one-man rotary dairy, with each cow custom-fed based on production.

“Every cow has a chip in her ear which is scanned prior to feeding, so we can see exactly how much milk she’s producing, and she’s then fed accordingly.”

Irrigation dam sensors, which monitor the level of irrigation water are another innovation on the wish list.  These, combined with the Smart Boxes that monitor the live power prices, work together to top up the dam levels at the cheapest cost.

“This seems like really handy technology, saving you time checking dam levels during heavy irrigation periods, and helping capture really cheap power.”

The property already utilises 100 kilowatts of solar thanks to a system installed in 2018, and while Darcy said it was ‘great for the pumps’, he was also currently looking at ways it could be more effectively used in the dairy.

“Of course it’s worth it when you can run pumps for nothing during the middle of the day, but the dairy is a different story so I’d like to explore if there are further areas of potential for solar in this space.”

Proud Rabobank clients, Darcy praised rural manager, Tony Anderson, for his constant support.

“He’s always there if we need advice on plans or we need to get out of a spot, and we really value him as an extra person the business can bounce ideas off.”

With the operation in a growth phase, he said it was reassuring having a strong relationship with the bank, particularly one that supported sustainable growth.

With so many more hours in the day to dedicate to the business, Darcy is excited to share his innovation triumph with fellow irrigators.

“It’s exciting to be an early adopter, I really do think this technology will lead the way, and if I can show other farmers how to be more efficient and gain a better quality of life in the meantime, then that’s a pretty good feeling.”

And no doubt settling into an evening at home knowing you no longer need to schlep out through paddocks to check pumps overnight is a pretty good feeling in the McAlpine household also.

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