In Focus: Farming technology

An overview of the latest innovations in farming technology, how it can help arable, horticulture and livestock systems, funding opportunities available and how members can benefit from the CLA’s expert advice

Why innovation is important for the agricultural industry

The gradual removal of direct payments from 2021 will lay bare the profitability of farming enterprises. Only 25% of farming enterprises are currently profitable without them. It is also widely acknowledged that the country’s agricultural productivity growth has fallen below comparable nations in recent years. So, if UK farming is to thrive and be competitive on a global stage, addressing the productivity challenge is vital.

Productivity is not just about producing higher yields but is a measure of how efficiently resources are converted into output, therefore, highly productive systems can exist across the broad spectrum of farming systems. For example, some systems may utilise a low input model that uses agroecological approaches, while others may adopt high tech, high output farming. The key is that all farming systems become more efficient and sustainable, and technology has a role to play whichever system is chosen.

What technology?

Technological innovations that improve productivity are many and varied. Many people think of recent digital technological advances, including automated, ‘hands-free’ farming, with self-piloted robots replacing today’s tractors and drones inspecting livestock. However, the role technology can play is much broader. Innovations in plant breeding, including new techniques such as gene editing, have the potential to improve productivity and reduce the environmental impact of those growing plants and those farming livestock. We are also seeing the blending of technology with engineering and digital working together in precision farming techniques. One thing is clear- much of the new technology will be centred on gathering and analysing data to identify where efficiency improvements can be made.

What is precision farming technology?

Arable and horticulture

Precision farming does exactly what it says on the tin – providing much more precise input at the right time, helping to reduce costs and minimise environmental impacts.

Tractors and sprayers can be fitted with mounted sensors that use crop light reflectance to apply nitrogen at a variable rate that reflects crop need. Mobile phone-controlled drones can be used to monitor crop performance and identify weed and pest issues. Mobile phone apps have been developed to integrate the data and provide useful information for decision-making that delivers cost savings and improves enterprise gross margins. Gathered data can also be used for on-farm or between-farm benchmarking, which is key to driving improvements in the sector.

The future is likely to see the more widespread adoption of precision farming technologies, expanding beyond the arable sector into livestock.

Livestock systems

Precision farming in livestock seems more challenging, particularly with grazing stock. Technologies within the sheep and beef sectors are taking time to develop; however, precision farming techniques can be used to improve the productivity of grass crops grown for silage or hay. Other uses are more about making time and labor-intensive tasks easier and quicker. For example, specialised cameras can provide a body condition score of an individual animal, which is linked to the animal’s electronic ID and provides a means of analysing the performance of individuals and a herd as a whole. Automated weighing equipment can also link to an animal’s electronic ID, and enables weighing and separation without human intervention and the tracking of live weight gains.

In the broiler chicken sector, many systems are highly managed and technology is used to automatically and remotely control production variables, such as shed temperature and feed and water levels. Indoor-farmed pigs are reared in similar environments with emerging technologies, including sensors that can track individual pigs and alter the water and feed intake. Facial and voice recognition technology is also being used in the pig sector to monitor stress levels. These technologies have the potential to reduce feed waste and identify health issues early.

Dairy production is also increasingly high-tech. Robotics have been used in milking systems and silage and slurry pushers for several years. The benefits of robotic milking include allowing cows to be milked when they choose and the utilisation of technology that enables the early detection of signs of disease, such as mastitis, leading to more prompt treatment. Sensors that analyse the milk produced by each cow in real-time enable both the health of the cow and milk quality to be continuously optimised, and help inform strategic herd decisions. Cows can also be fitted with activity monitoring collars, which can learn an individual’s behaviour and flag individuals for attention when their eating and activity behaviour deviates from the norm.

As we know livestock, particularly cattle, are responsible for methane emissions when they digest. Technologies are currently in development aiming to reduce methane production. These include the development of feed additives, which can reduce a cow’s methane production by 30%, and employing greenhouse gas-focussed genetic selection and breeding.

Grant funding opportunities

Defra is due to launch the Farming Investment Fund in autumn 2021. Under this scheme applicants in England will be able to apply for grants towards the costs of equipment, technology and infrastructure that will increase efficiency, improve productivity and reduce input applications and greenhouse gas 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

There is a similar scheme running in Wales known as the Farm Business Grant, with a similar list of eligible equipment. The current application window closed on 1 October 2021; however, further funding windows are expected in 2022.

Autumn 2021 will also see the launch of Defra’s Farming Innovation Programme. This is a research programme that will create opportunities for farmers and researchers to collaborate on research and development, sharing their results and learnings. The funding will be delivered by UK Research and Innovation, and funding applications will be competitive and assessed by independent experts.

How to get more information & involved?

There is a wealth of information online with details of different manufactures and sellers of equipment and machinery, which often are accompanied by demonstration videos. Attending national shows such as the LAMMA show, or regional shows, is one way of gaining exposure to new technologies. New companies and start-ups often attend similar events and conferences and may use those as a means of securing investment from backers. Some farmers may be willing to get involved in piloting new technologies they are particularly interested in helping to develop.

Connectivity and digital skills

Rural digital 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. The CLA has long argued for improved ubiquitous connectivity across rural England and Wales. We are putting pressure on the government to honour the £5bn spending commitment for fixed-line digital connectivity and will continue our work with the mobile industry to expand network data coverage.

Given the anticipated uptake of new technology, there will be a requirement to ensure that users have both the skills to operate the machinery and use it to its maximum potential, and the CLA has lobbied the government to invest £20m/annum in a digital skills training programme.

Conclusion

There is clearly no substitute for good crop and livestock husbandry. However, new technology, in its widest sense, is something to be embraced where it fits with the system and delivers real benefits in cost or time savings or improved management.

If you’re a CLA member and you have any further questions relating to farm technology and the funding available, get in touch with your regional office.

Key contact:

Cameron Hughes
Cameron Hughes Land Use Policy Adviser