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Flying high and spreading smart

By Shannon William, NZ Farm Trader

Ever-changing requirements and ongoing challenges facing the rural sector means agri-business and contractors are continually having to up their game in regards to the services they offer, the quality of their products, and the technology behind their machines and equipment.

That’s exactly the mantra Super Air is following, with upgrades to its fleet and brand-new technology changing the way traditional top dressing is done in New Zealand.

The company has been around since 1988 and for the last 31 years has focused on agricultural aviation specialising in the fixed-wing aerial application of solid fertiliser and lime.

Manager John Elliott says top dressing is a vital service for the rural sector. “We’ve got roughly twelve-and-a-half million hectares of farm land in New Zealand, and eight-and-a-half million of that, give or take, is sheep and beef, and a large chunk of that needs its fertiliser applied aerially,” he says.

“So without top dressing companies, the ability to have productive hill country is severely restrained because you need to get the nutrients on the hills to replace what’s been taken off in production.”

Super Air has 14 aircraft within its fleet, with regional bases all around the country.

“We are here to get fertiliser onto hill country, where you can’t ground spread it,” says John. The company also has maritime contracts for oil dispersion. If there was ever a grounding of a ship off the coast, it has contracts with Maritime NZ to be on standby


The company continues to introduce SpreadSmart software into its operations, which John says is a game-changer for the rural industry.

“SpreadSmart is software that drives hydraulics in the aircraft. This means is our aircraft are fully automated. The days of the pilot opening and closing the sowing lever are no longer,” he says.

“We load highly detailed maps into the aircraft’s computer and the aircraft flies over the landscape and applies the fertiliser in a prescriptive manner,

so it keeps it out of any exclusion zones, or sensitive areas. As the plane is flying along it will automatically adjust the sowing rate to create a variable rate application in line with what the farmer or the consultant has prescribed.”

John says imagination is the only thing that really constrains what can be done using SmartSpread technology.

“The computer in the aircraft is making 10 decisions every second, so we can affect the change very quickly, and precisely place the fertiliser to give the best agronomic result.”

He says the new technology addresses some of the environmental challenges farmers and growers are facing.

“What it means for the industry is that we can now ensure we keep nutrients out of sensitive areas – waterways and so on. We see ourselves as having a positive impact and being a contributor to the execution of farm environment plans. Farmers are obviously under more constraint than they have ever been. With the technology in our aircraft, we have a significant role to play in the placement of the product.”

Super Air is currently the only company in New Zealand to have the SpreadSmart technology in its aircraft.

Future flying

“It will become a hygiene factor – that’s how we see it in the future. For us to be relevant in five or 10 years’ time, we have to be using this technology, and we can have a big difference in how hard the nutrients the farmers have purchased are working, by ensuring product is only placed where they want it placed,” says John.

The development of SpreadSmart was a Primary Growth Partnership-funded project. The company met with the minister of agriculture last month, which John says was a great opportunity.

“We discussed how we’ve commercialised the software, how we’re rolling it out across our whole fleet, and what the advantages are to the farming industry in New Zealand,” he says.

“They were very receptive, really interested and engaged, and it’s just part of a wider suite of Ballance Agri-Nutrients innovations done with PGP funding, and it’s good for them to see what it looks like once it’s commercialised and what it’s doing for growers.”

John says the variable rate technology, over the traditional way of applying using a manual sowing lever, the cost benefit has been worked out to be in the region of $60 dollars per hectare per application, “which is a significant advantage.”

All of Super Air’s fleet will be fitted out with the software by Christmas this year.

“We’re also investing in new aircraft,” John says. “We’re in the middle of upgrading our fleet to modern aircraft. The top dressing fleet in New Zealand by and large are older aircraft, so we’ve committed to a capital programme of upgrading our entire fleet so we have modern safe gear that is all high capacity in terms of what they can carry.

“We see a bright future for farming in New Zealand and we want to be part of that. If we want to be part of it, we need to be fit for purpose.”

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