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Smart farming: why it pays to invest in technology

Farmers are increasingly under pressure to produce more, at higher quality and in a more sustainable way.

There may never have been a more testing time to be a farmer, as agriculture in the UK faces a perfect storm of challenging market conditions.

A rapidly growing population, climate change, soil degradation, rising energy costs, water pollution, biodiversity loss, and the commercial pressures of preserving farm workers’ livelihoods have all aligned to make agricultural food production tougher than ever.

Covid-19 has only intensified the situation and Brexit has affected the availability of the seasonal, migrant workforce, placing even more pressure on UK producers.

To counteract these challenges, experts believe it is vital that the industry innovates and embraces new technology to work alongside existing farming practices.

Agricultural technology, or agri-tech, is helping transform the food production sector by reducing the human input required to perform repetitive, labour-intensive jobs. And smart farming software applications can help to predict yields, automate irrigation and monitor soil health, as well as many other tasks.

Agri-tech applications
  • Robotics and autonomous vehicles
  • Automatic irrigation
  • Remote crop-yield optimisation
  • Management of livestock
  • Soil health monitoring
  • Greenhouse monitoring
  • Precise weather forecasting
  • Predictive analytics for crop sustainability
  • Weed control
  • Animal health monitoring

John Giles, Divisional Director of agri-food consultants, Promar International, says: “Farming is a difficult way of earning a living just now. We have the combination of a number of things coming together, making it challenging for even the most competent of farmers. 

“It’s imperative that we find and employ the appropriate technology to help take the strain. It’s not a silver bullet, but the use of technology can play a big part in mitigating these factors.”

A new revolution

Other parts of the farm-to-table supply chain are already employing smart technology, so it’s vital that agricultural businesses follow suit, says John.

“Britain’s history of innovation can be traced back to the agricultural revolution. We’ve always been at the forefront of innovation, but this is a new revolution.

“Food processing, storage and the rest of the supply chain are using AI [artificial intelligence] and other types of tech,” he says. “Farmers have to follow suit, otherwise they risk being left behind.

“There’s actually a bewildering amount of technology available now, and the biggest challenge is educating farmers about what is appropriate for their businesses.”

We’re at a pivotal crossroads in the industry at the moment and technology and innovation are underpinning it. So it’s a pretty safe bet that embracing technology is an investment in the future

Dr Belinda Clarke
Director, Agri-TechE

Agriculture and horticulture are facing four major problems: the global population is growing quickly, so there are more mouths to feed; there is a permanent shortage of staff available for harvesting; consumers increasingly want sustainably produced food; and there is the NFU’s challenge of achieving carbon neutrality by 2040.

The current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. With the world’s population set to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, the UN has forecast that if current patterns of food consumption continue, approximately 60% more food will be required globally in 2050. 

What’s more, the UK is currently lagging behind other regions, with productivity increasing only 1% annually, as compared with 3% in the US and The Netherlands.

An investment in the future

Nearly all UK farms are already using some form of technology, whether it’s a GPS-enabled tractor, or a mobile weather app, says Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE, a membership group which advocates smarter farming.

“We’re at a pivotal crossroads in the industry at the moment and technology and innovation are underpinning it,” she says. “So it’s a pretty safe bet that embracing technology is an investment in the future.”

With a large choice of new agri-tech, she acknowledges that it can be difficult to know where to begin, but some of the most useful applications are the easiest to access and operate.

“Anything that will give you additional insights into your plants, your animals, your soils, is a good place to start,” she says. “Understanding the variability across the field and using that data to make informed decisions is key.”

By introducing advanced technologies, agri-enterprises can be more profitable, more efficient, safer and remain environmentally friendly.

While there are already robots milking cows, in the next few years many more smart robots will be introduced into the daily routines of farmers. 

For instance, robotic devices can be used to extract weeds from the ground, reducing the need for harmful pesticides. Or they can measure water or CO2 levels in the soil, without the need for back-breaking, manual testing.

Robotriks, based in Cornwall, is one business developing a robotic tool for farmers. The company’s autonomous tractor, the Robotriks Traction Unit (RTU) is in its final stages of testing, and will help farms monitor, plant and harvest crops, with minimal soil compaction impact. Its estimated cost of £7,500 should make it affordable for most agriculture businesses, too. 

Company Director Jake Shaw-Sutton says labour shortages, soil degradation and unpredictable weather patterns are making autonomous vehicles essential on a modern farm.

He says: “Having a small-platform robot – a miniature electric tractor effectively – that can go out and do all of the manual inspection for you, day and night, is a huge benefit to farm businesses.

“You could have one unit in one field and another unit in another field, performing a different set of tasks, feeding data back to a central point. It takes all of that manual management away, which gives the operator more time to focus on other issues.”

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