High-tech agriculture

Dr Cather Simpson

Making sure sperm is correctly sorted for artificial insemination of cows, sheep and cattle is vital for farmers.

Now science and engineering students who are part of The University of Auckland’s Photon Factory in the Faculty of Science have come up with a simple method so farmers can choose whether to produce male or female animals. Using high-tech laser technology, they have invented a device that is being patented and developed by spin-out company Technologies.

“This new approach lowers the cost to farmers,” says Dr Cather Simpson, head of the Photon Factory. “It causes less damage to the sperm, so it’s likely to be very attractive to industry.”

Another University project that will benefit New Zealand agriculture is work by Distinguished Professor of Organic and Medicinal Chemistry Margaret Brimble to determine whether the common garden potato could play a key role in treating Psa – the bacterial pathogen which has been infecting kiwifruit vines throughout the country and threatening exports.

With funding from kiwifruit industry organisation Zespri and in collaboration with Plant & Food Research, Margaret and Dr Paul Harris have chemically synthesised an antibiotic agent that may be effective in treating Psa.
“The genomes for potatoes and kiwifruit are very similar,” she says. “Both have similar anti-microbial peptides [antibiotics] and in potatoes these natural antibiotics are known to fight fungi and bacteria that cause disease. We can mimic this as a potential treatment for kiwifruit.”

Margaret’s laboratory is also working with international agricultural company Bayer to create an antibiotic to treat mastitis in cows. “It will allow us to cross the blood/milk barrier when there is severe infection.”
A growing number of University of Auckland science researchers are using their high-tech expertise to help New Zealand farmers and growers.

Projects at the School of Biological Sciences include looking at toxins to control pastoral pests; research into yeast varieties for New Zealand’s winemaking industry; natural fungicides and the health of stream ecosystems. “And that’s only a half of it,” says Gillian Lewis, Head of School.

Dean of Science Professor Grant Guilford says the University’s agricultural research takes a broad approach, from cow genetics to helping farmers deal with stress.

Last year a Joint Graduate School in Dairy Research and Innovation was launched with DairyNZ, farmer co-operative Livestock Improvement Corporation and AgResearch. The school fosters post-graduate research that contributes to sustainable productivity on the farm. “We want to create a focus on the dairy industry to help it recruit top talent,” says Grant.

The Faculty of Engineering robotics team is focused on increasing mechanisation on farms and automating ways to assess animal health and welfare. Meanwhile researchers at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences are studying the effects of infection on cow conception rates and how to improve herd fertility.
And the benefits from the University’s research extend beyond the farm gate, says Grant Guilford. “We make a significant contribution to the primary sector – our researchers enhance the economic value of primary sector products, optimise food process engineering, hone logistics and supply, and develop smart marketing.”

This article is reprinted from AucklandNow Issue 12, April 2013.