Business management

The food innovators: agricultural trailblazers

In this series of three articles, we speak to agile innovators who are blazing a trail in food production and helping to keep the country fed in a time of crisis. Here, three forward-thinking agricultural business leaders share their insights and experiences.

Cecilia Pryce is head of compliance, shipping and research at Openfield

“We’re Britain’s only national grain marketing and arable inputs co-operative, owned by around 4,000 farmers. Annually we trade around 17% of the UK-marketed grain, handle 1.1m tonnes of grain through 14 stores, and sell fertiliser and produce seed through the UK’s most modern seed plant.

“With all the above activities, technology and software is a must. We use it to ensure the elements of the supply chain we touch work as efficiently as possible. This could involve ensuring each farmer gets the correct price quote that fully reflects how far their grain needs to travel, through to checking their Red Tractor assurance details. Almost every part of what we do daily involves some form of data transfer.

“Covid-19 created some minor issues – grain doesn’t need to wash its hands and isn’t a vector but we do need people to drive lorries and perform daily tasks. Once the ‘people’ aspect of our business had been addressed it was very much business as usual. Any unnecessary direct contact with farms and facilities was removed and the electronic systems we already had in place to perform daily tasks became a bigger focus.

“Farmers have adjusted as well, relying more on things like the PDF grain passports while also engaging in the services we supply them with, such as contract confirmations, movement instructions and payments details on Insight, our online account tool, and the Openfield app. Not everyone engages fully with technology and this is also important. Farming can be a lonely occupation and we recognise the need for interaction, which is why the phone and post also have their role to play.

“The ability to transfer data with any commodity will become the key focus in years to come. Traceability, carbon footprints and any sustainability and welfare criteria will be demanded by governments, supermarkets and maybe even consumers, if we are to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals. As such, an electronic passport for UK farm commodities is a must. Proof that our farmers and supply chain are doing the best they can to provide an efficiently moved, fully assured, carbon-neutral, safe commodity is what I believe we need to be ready to deliver.”

“Technology is more important to farming now than it’s ever been”

Gavin Saxby is hardware engineering manager at IceRobotics

“IceRobotics was founded in 2002 with a simple mission: to improve dairy cattle welfare through our advanced wearable technology.

“In 2005 we first produced a sensor called IceTag, which has become the gold standard for measuring cow behaviour. It measures step count, standing and lying times and how much the cow moves and how much effort she has to put into moving. In 2010 we were able to use the rich data from this device to produce our IceQube sensor for commercial dairy cows at a more economic price point.

“Technology is more important to farming now than it’s ever been. Margins in the dairy industry are tight, farmers are being asked to do more with less, and our products help them monitor their cows automatically, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which even the best herdsman can’t manage.

“The impact of Covid-19 on some of our customers has been devastating, including farms going out of business. Many people visit farms through the week such as sales reps, parlour engineers, vets, hoof trimmers and so on, and farmers have to take lots of precautions to protect the health of visitors and farmworkers. Skilled herdsmen and milkers are hard to find and if someone catches Covid-19 and has to isolate for two weeks it can cause a critical labour shortage on the farm.

“Our sensors monitor many aspects of cow health and can often spot underlying problems earlier than humans can. By giving farmers the tools to intervene early it reduces the need for vets or hoof trimmers to visit the farm to treat severe lameness once the problem has become so bad the cow is visibly limping.

“Machine learning is already used in one of our algorithms. I would expect to see artificial intelligence and machine learning playing a greater role in future development. In time the algorithms should be able to spot all kinds of diseases in the data and suggest the right interventions. As sensor technology gets smaller and devices use less and less power, I can see devices being small enough to be placed under the skin of the animal to give even greater information in real time, such as temperature, heart rate, blood pressure and so on. Robotics is already in use on farms for milking cows, feeding and cleaning up their muck and in the future, I think we’ll see robot herders and fully automated tractors too.”

“Improvement in technology has been important for organic farmers”

Andrew Trump is managing director of Organic Arable

“As the only dedicated organic grain marketing company in the UK, we market about 18,000 tonnes of organic grain per annum on behalf of about 60 farmers across the UK.

“The organic sector is often seen as a place for innovation to flourish but when we’ve spoken with companies implementing either satellite imaging or drone imaging to monitor and flag problems in growing crops, we come up against a fundamental challenge. Tech is generally a high-margin, highly innovative sector with short lifecycles while farming is a low-margin industry with longer-term objectives. The opportunity to implement technology is not straightforward.

“Covid-19 had a significant impact on our customers, with some sectors finding the demand for product increasing significantly. We saw a large increase in demand for milling wheat, with organic flour millers seeing a large growth in sales. Milling oats saw similar strengthening of demand. Conversely, the challenges for the dairy sector saw demand for feed fall, which had a knock-on effect on grain movements.

“Our ability to communicate with our farmers allowed us to keep them abreast of these changes. Strong relationships with customers and farmers allowed us to manage the situation to the satisfaction of all – despite some grumbles along the way.

“Improvement in technology has been important for organic farmers, with the introduction of innovative new cultivation and weed-management equipment, although this has largely been mechanical rather than digital technology, or a combination of both. Organic farmers are often innovating. At the ones we work with, we’ve seen one become an importer for a Swedish drill/hoe, one develop a milling machine to denature weed seeds coming off the back of the combine, and one develop a band to top his pasture and create less competition for the newly drilled crops. Organic farmers are also engaged in trialling electric weeding equipment and robotic weeding equipment. This is often farmer innovation and on-farm experimentation rather than commercial development.

“I think soil biology will become the mainstay of crop fertility management over the next 20 years as current fertilisers are reduced due to their high greenhouse gas equivalence and pollution effects. Soil management and soil quality will become the key driver of both crop management and, ultimately, farmland value.”

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