Digital technology, and particularly data gathering technology, is set to play a major role in the development of the UK’s agricultural sector in the next decade. The capture and analysis of data is seen as key to improving economic and environmental performance across all agricultural sectors as well as increasing productivity.
Productivity is a measure of how efficiently resources are converted to output, however the rate of productivity growth in UK agriculture lags behind that of many of our major competitors.
Whilst technologies that allow more precise and variable rates of nutrients and pesticides applications have been increasing in use, widespread adoption of innovative technology is yet to be embraced across all farming sectors.
We all know data is king, but how can we make it easier to capture and use the data?
Arable and horticulture
Various tools already exist that gather information on crop inputs, yields, quality, and economic data. Combine harvesters can be installed with electronic yield monitors and tractors and sprayers can be fitted with mounted nitrogen sensors that use crop light reflectance to apply nitrogen at a variable rate.
The future could see the adoption of autonomous robots used to plant, monitor, and treat crops as well as greater use of telemetrics to collect infield realtime data. Armed with this data, and with the software to analyse the information, farmers and landowners can make targeted decisions that deliver cost savings and improve enterprise gross margins. The data can also be used for on farm or between farm benchmarking, which is key to driving improvements in the sector.
Data analysis within the livestock sector is taking more time to develop. This is set to change with the introduction of the Livestock Information Service (LIS) from late 2020. This is an electronic identification service that aims to create a digitalised farm animal record which will drive innovation and productivity improvements through greater flow and integration of data.
There are currently a range of technologies available to livestock farmers which make time-consuming tasks easier and quicker. Specialised cameras can provide a body condition score of a cow or pig which is linked to the animal’s electronic ID and provides a means of analysing the performance of a herd.
In the beef, sheep and pig sectors, automated weighing equipment, which links with the animal’s electronic ID, has the ability to weigh animals without human intervention and track live weight gains as well as separating animals into groups based on weight.
Dairy production is often highly managed and robotics have been used in milking systems and in silage and slurry pushers for a number of years.
Milk sensors that analyse the milk produced by each cow in real time enable the health of the cow and milk quality to be continuously optimised. These sensors can provide information on key milk constituents such as fat, protein and lactose from each udder quarter and the data can be used to improve cow performance and help inform strategic herd decisions.
Productivity grants offered through the Rural Development Programme can help fund new technology. Defra is preparing for a final round of the Countryside Productivity Small Grant Scheme in October 2020.
Under the scheme, farmers can apply for grants worth between £3,000- £12,000 to invest in new equipment such as livestock monitoring cameras or precision farming technology, with the grant contributing up to 40% of the standard cost of each item of equipment.
Looking to the future, the UK Government has said it will launch its own productivity grant schemes from 2021. These schemes will offer targeted financial assistance to support farmers, foresters and growers to reduce costs and improve yields whilst enhancing the environment.
Applicants will be able to apply for grants towards the costs of equipment, technology and infrastructure that will increase efficiency, improve productivity and reduce input application and emissions. Grants will be available for a proportion of the total cost of investment. Eligible investments could include things such as:
- Variable rate nutrient or pesticide applicators
- Efficient irrigation systems
- Robotic milking systems
- Automated animal handling systems
Defra is also developing a new innovation research and development package to be introduced from 2022. The aim of this package is to generate research and increase the uptake of new technologies and approaches.
Rural connectivity will be key to ensuring the seamless functioning of innovative technology and data gathering as many new technologies rely on an internet data connection to transfer information. There is a need to invest in the broadband and mobile connectivity including 5G infrastructure. Although the government pledged to invest £5bn in delivering faster broadband and a further £1bn to increase 4G mobile coverage across the UK in 2019, it is clear that there is still some way to go in the delivery of nationwide connectivity.
There is clearly no substitute for ‘hands on’ farming. However, greater use of data gathering technology and analysis will be vital in securing the future competitiveness of UK agriculture. It will also play a role in delivery of the domestic agricultural, environmental and climate change agendas.
Challenges and opportunities
Choice – Selecting which technology to invest in, given rapid development.
Training requirements – To make best use of the technology it is worth investing in training for operators and management.
Data collection – Using telemetrics to automatically collect and transmit data.
Data storage – Consider how the data will be stored safely, organised and analysed and how different software is integrated.
Data overload – Too much data can be as bad as no data, so focus on the right data. But it is essential to value time spent on data analysis to help make right decisions.