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How agri-tech and science can kick-start a quantum leap in farming efficiency

PUBLISHED: 07:00 04 November 2019 | UPDATED: 08:20 04 November 2019

A drone monitoring an oilseed rape field. Picture: Drone Ag

A drone monitoring an oilseed rape field. Picture: Drone Ag

Drone Ag

Agri-tech innovations and crop science breakthroughs can only spark a quantum leap in food sustainability if they can be deployed in the field - so tech developers, researchers and farm managers have called for more collaboration to combine their expertise.

Dr Brian Rigney of The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) will be part of the Next Generation Innovation Sofa Session at REAP 2019. Picture: The Sainsbury LaboratoryDr Brian Rigney of The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) will be part of the Next Generation Innovation Sofa Session at REAP 2019. Picture: The Sainsbury Laboratory

The latest technological advances and scientific breakthroughs will be highlighted this week during the annual East Anglian showcase of Agri-Tech Week - as well as discussions on how these potential game-changers can be deployed on farmers' fields.

One of the exhibitors at Wednesday's central REAP conference in Newmarket is Drone Ag, who will be offering delegates a sneak preview of its new Skippy Scout system, which will be launched commercially in 2020.

Skippy Scout is a practical smartphone application that automates crop monitoring using drones. It flies the drone autonomously, collating high-resolution photographs that are analysed using customised AI (artificial intelligence) based software.

The aim is to give farmers real-time information that they need to better target the use of pesticides.

Emma Kelcher, technical manager at Elveden Farms, is part of the Next Generation Innovation Sofa Session at REAP 2019. Picture: Elveden Estate.Emma Kelcher, technical manager at Elveden Farms, is part of the Next Generation Innovation Sofa Session at REAP 2019. Picture: Elveden Estate.

Drone Ag is based in Northumberland with a training centre at Thetford in Norfolk. Jack Wrangham, who founded the firm with his brother Hugh after a successful crowdfunding campaign to develop the software, said: "I believe that securing a great future for agriculture in the UK is all about cooperation and data sharing.

"Many companies are bringing ground-breaking new ideas and tech to this industry, but no one company is going to solve the issues we face.

"By working together, creating fast, easily accessible data sharing platforms and standardising where possible, we can create an industry that vastly improves efficiency and sustainability."

READ MORE: Agri-Tech Week 2019: How 'One Agriculture' vision can help farmers feed a fragile world

Science is another area where efforts are being made to improve crop yields and reduce reliance on agro-chemicals.

Dr Brian Rigney, a scientist at the 2Blades Group, part of The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, said: "As the world population continues to expand innovations in agri-tech will play a major part in ensuring a sustainable food supply. I grew up on a farming enterprise and have always been aware of the constant need for crop improvement.

"Research at The Sainsbury Laboratory has identified multiple key traits in the plant genome that will help reduce crop losses through disease. This discovery has the potential to improve yields and reduce the impact of toxic chemicals on the environment and the farmer.

"Although these biotech traits are currently prohibited for use in Europe, this technology may be adopted in large agriculture economies such as the USA and Brazil. I hope that the positive impact will resonate and the technology will be adopted more widely in the near future.

"I see great potential for gene enhancement. It will enable us to become more efficient in reducing crop loss, and this will in turn have a positive impact on sustainable agriculture. In the future, we will be able to produce more crops with fewer chemicals and protect the environment."

But agri-tech wizardry and scientific innovation can only bring benefits if they can be communicated and incorporated into real-world farming businesses.

"Sustainability and improved communication through the value chain is key to the long term survival and quality of UK food production," said Emma Kelcher, farms technical manager at Elveden Farms, on the Norfolk-Suffolk border near Thetford.

"The technology we use is designed to improve crop quality. We select varieties not just on yield but also to improve vigour, disease and pest resistance. "We employ Smart Analysis to determine nitrogen levels of wheat growing in the field to time nitrogen application and also to predict the levels of protein in milling wheat.

We can monitor water levels with probes to time irrigation. Brix (sweetness) levels are used to assess harvest timings and storability of a crop.

"We are using remote sensing to monitor pests and diseases to check that the incident falls within our thresholds, and this information is allowing us to make decisions on pesticide application. We also have the latest precision spray technology in order to reduce pesticide usage.

"The on-farm lab at Elveden is really leading-edge. Farming is changing and developments in technology mean that the lead times are much shorter, so you can get the benefits of research out into the field in a much shorter time."

She said better communication along the value chain - from producers to retailers - could also help to reduce waste, with analysis from crop modelling, weather forecasting and consumer trends predicting market demand many months before crops are planted, lowering the risk of wasteful over-production.

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