Intelligent application of new and emerging technologies lies at the centre of any vision for increasing UK agricultural productivity while supporting the environment and tackling climate change. But transforming innovation into realistic and pragmatic options has long been a challenge.
Jack Wrangham, founder of CLA member DroneAg, says: “Tech is more in tune now with the end goal of helping farming become more efficient for commercial and environmental reasons. The focus needs to be on ‘what should we do’, rather than ‘what can we do’.” CLA member David Blacker farms in North Yorkshire, focusing on combinable crops over 2,000 acres. He has trialled numerous new precision farming technologies, and next year he will be the first commercial farmer to host Harper Adams’ Hands Free Farming project.
A sensor on one of David’s combines gives a protein map of a field, which he uses to verify nitrogen use efficiency. Trackers give data on which tractor has been in each field, fuel use, and time taken, enabling David to cost operations more accurately and analyse changes with different soil types. David says: “Technology makes a big difference to our efficiency. We’re not using anywhere near as much product as we used to. As well as the environmental benefits, we’re seeing advantages in productivity, efficiency and saving a lot of time. “The most interesting current developments in farming technology are modifications that make existing technologies more useful and user-friendly, rather than creating something entirely new.” This view is echoed by Jack.
Initially, we found that there was plenty of interest in using drone technology, but farmers didn’t have the time for the programming needed, for mapping the fields or processing reams of data.
DroneAg focuses on enabling widespread application of drone technology in useful and practicable ways to save time and provide salient data, and it launched Skippy Scout in March 2020. The automated crop scouting system uses the farmer’s phone to fly the drone around the field, covering two hectares every minute and dropping down at various points to take high resolution photos.
These photos are then analysed to provide a timely report that measures crop cover percentage versus weed cover percentage and detects issues such as insect damage and disease. “The tech industry is learning from farmers now – that’s quite a new thing,” says Jack.
Practical needs in farming also lie at the heart of CLA member Small Robot Company. Brand Manager James Burrows explains: “Based around the principle of per plant farming, our small robots can take action on plants at an individual level. This becomes increasingly valuable year on year as farmers are able to see at a granular level which parts of a field are performing in certain ways, cutting inputs to improve efficiency and environmental sustainability. And with per plant intelligence, you can start to train artificial intelligence (AI) to distinguish between different weeds, so you could retain the biodiversity benefit of clover or poppies while still removing blackgrass.
There are also major benefits in reducing soil compaction. The Tom robot has the ground pressure of one third of a human foot.
New and emerging technologies certainly bring exciting potential but, as David Blacker points out, it is not without challenges – including not fully knowing the return on investment. Drawing on government support could help overcome this barrier. CLA Chief Land Use Policy Advisor Farming Investment Fund is set to open in England in autumn 2021, replacing the countryside productivity grant schemes.
The CLA has worked with Defra to make sure a range of technologies and equipment are included, so that applicants can select the right opportunities for their land and operations – whether that is the latest innovations or technologies that have been on the market for a while.” This inclusion of older technologies in the Farming Investment Fund is important. For David Blacker, yield mapping remains one of his best investments – “especially when you can start seeing trends and factoring in costs,” he says. This kind of technology can help you prepare for the day when wheat is £100 per tonne rather than £200 per tonne.
A robotic dairy
Wiltshire College and University Centre’s Lackham campus has invested in robotic dairy technology to help engage students in a future for dairy with automation at its core. Two DeLaval V300 robotic units at the College’s Home Farm allow 120 cows to be milked as and when they choose, according to each cow’s individual needs and capacity. Installed in 2020, the robotic dairy is central to the institution’s new Higher
Philip Steans, Wiltshire College and University Centre’s Farm and Estate Manager, says: “The technology has been unbelievable so far, and we still have much more to learn. Our students will be able to experience both the old and the new systems, and working with cows in the robots is enjoyable and interesting. There is a shortage of young people coming into our industry, and new technologies can help encourage new interest.”
The health and welfare of the cows was another major driving force for the investment.
The robots can detect mastitis up to two days earlier, so we can treat animals more quickly,
Philip says. “We’ve also got robots pushing up silage and scraping out manure, which helps with foot problems, and a lighting system ensuring the cows get the right amount of daylight, which helps with vitamin D. It’s all taking some learning, but we’re seeing healthier cows, a better milk yield, better food efficiency and lower electricity consumption.”
For DroneAg’s Jack Wrangham, progress lies in integration. “Some systems have been very closed, but they are starting to link together now. We will start to see data feeding AI systems that make decisions about where and when machinery or equipment is used. It’s not as far away as people might think.
To maximise opportunities presented by new and emerging technologies, farmers and landowners will need a policy environment that supports the development of future skills, encourages knowledge exchange and improves digital connectivity in rural areas.