Here’s a grubby problem: how to manage a dairy herd in winter?
Over the years, Northland dairy farmers Tom and Kathy Pow explored the gamut of solutions: cubicle barns, stand-off areas on concrete, metal, wood chips, sawdust and even designated paddocks. Each solution had certain benefits but they also created other problems.
Summer offered no respite with cows battling heat stress and drinking copious amounts of extra water, and the flies adding to the plethora of problems.
The Pow’s eureka moment—a housing system branded Herd Homes—came from a long process of observation, testing, support from colleagues. They also got help along the way from AgResearch and patent attorneys A J Park.
While not intended to be a Club Med for bovines, the system keeps them warm in winter and cool in summer. The design also allows for the natural evaporation of the liquid component in dairy farm waste, the means for solid fertiliser and a heated environment optimally suited for milk production.
Airflow is critical and the home uses a roof that allows clear light in, so excrement dries on the concrete slat floor. This minimises bacterial build-up. The cow muck gets pressed on to the slats and sticks to the concrete almost like a compressed ‘cow carpet’ that is gentle on the hooves.
From there the urine and dung fall into an aerated concrete bunker. This allows the effluent to remain stable, relatively odour-free and retaining nutrients. When it returns to the farm as fertiliser, it’s more weather-tolerant and avoids run-off into natural waterways. In some cases where Herd Homes animal shelters have been introduced, there was no longer any need for artificial fertilisers.
While happier herds and less hassled workers are a clear benefit, those concerned about the damage that intense dairy farming can do to the environment equally find favour with this solution.
“The environmental benefits were a natural byproduct behind the invention, which was creating a hassle-free and muck-free way to manage herds during winter months,” says Kathy. “The fact we’ve developed a sustainable product with a primary sector fit, and one with no negative impact on crop fertilisation and spillage from waste overflow, makes it all the more attractive as both a summer and winter housing alternative.”
Animal shelters date back to when people were sleeping with stock in caves, and are not new to New Zealand. The trick was to find something unique.
Patent attorney Anton Blijlevens from A J Park remembers meeting the Pows.
“They had already received some early advice and had some patents already in place. One of the golden rules of achieving patent protection is that a patent is filed before the invention is sold or made public. Fortunately they kept a lid on the idea before disclosing developments, and this got us to first base. As well as their passion, there were a few elements to the idea that gave me confidence—it was feasible and solved a number of industry specific problems.”
On closer inspection, a number of features of the Pow’s inventions were old. Nevertheless, Blijlevens spotted an opening.
“Their solution involved putting one plus one together to make three, the result being greater than the sum of its parts. Continuing their R&D after the first concept, we were able to get successive evolutions into the fold. As patents last for 20 years, having evolutions protected by sequential patents can keep competition three steps behind. So one plus one equals three—and with patent protection, it could equal six.
“One of the inventions is the idea of providing a covered shelter for animals. Without energy input such as heaters or electric fans, this can control the ambient temperature inside, despite adverse temperatures outside, to keep the animal’s body temperature at a level that will maximise milk yield.
“Simultaneously, the shelter allows for excrement to be separated from the animals. The otherwise environmentally damaging urine (think of nitrification of waterways) is allowed to evaporate off, leaving solid waste that can be recycled for pasture fertilisation. In total, this could be packaged as a very green solution to many different issues that dairy farmers face."
Putting the system on site is not a cheap exercise (one to house and manage 200 dry cows costs slightly over $250,000)—but savings in other areas such as electricity, water use, feed production and pasture restoration—not to mention the increased milk production yields that are achieved—make the investment sustainable.
“In the end,” says Tom, “contented cows, happy staff, reduced fertiliser costs, better pasture and profits, and less pressure on the environment make us proud of our home.”
Keep your idea secret until you’ve seen a patent attorney to help determine the merits of patent protection for the idea.
Do some research to identify if anything similar already exists in the market∙
Think about what part of your idea is commercially viable—that is, what features will be copied.
Understand IP ownership and work out the most beneficial ownership structure to suit your needs∙
Conduct IP infringement searches to understand if your road to market may be impaired by the intellectual property rights of others.
Partner, A J Park