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Agri-tech ideas explored as Royal Norfolk Show’s innovation hub moves online

PUBLISHED: 12:00 03 July 2020 | UPDATED: 12:22 03 July 2020

Dr Simon Bowen of BBRO joined one of the podcasts at the Royal Norfolk Show's Virtual Innovation Hub, hosted by Agri-TechE. Picture: Chris Hill.

Dr Simon Bowen of BBRO joined one of the podcasts at the Royal Norfolk Show's Virtual Innovation Hub, hosted by Agri-TechE. Picture: Chris Hill.

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Agri-tech solutions to East Anglia’s key farming challenges have been demonstrated and debated at a virtual event which was moved online following the cancellation of the Royal Norfolk Show.

The challenges facing East Anglia's sugar beet growers was one of the issues discussed at the Royal Norfolk Show's Virtual Innovation Hub, hosted by Agri-TechE. Picture: Chris Hill.The challenges facing East Anglia's sugar beet growers was one of the issues discussed at the Royal Norfolk Show's Virtual Innovation Hub, hosted by Agri-TechE. Picture: Chris Hill.

The Virtual Innovation Hub, hosted by Agri-TechE, discussed how data analysis, science and engineering developments are addressing topical issues including the need to quickly diagnose viral infections in livestock, and how to mitigate the impact of the withdrawal of chemicals used to stop stored potatoes from sprouting, or to protect sugar beet plants from pests and diseases.

The hub would usually take centre stage at the Royal Norfolk Show, but it was reimagined as a virtual event this year after the county show’s cancellation due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Exhibitors sharing videos and podcasts included Norwich-based Iceni Diagnostics, which is developing a technology that can be used for rapid diagnosis of livestock viral infections in a non-clinical environment, such as a stable or farm.

The Sainsbury Laboratory, also based on Norwich Research Park, highlighted its work to develop blight-resistant potatoes, and a new technology that could overcome the withdrawal of chemicals used in potato stores, by enabling the suppression of enzymes that convert starch to sugar in potatoes, allowing storage at lower temperatures while maintaining quality.

David Clarke, soils and farming systems technician at NIAB. Picture: NIABDavid Clarke, soils and farming systems technician at NIAB. Picture: NIAB

Meanwhile, the University of East Anglia (UEA) is exploring how paper crumble, a co-product of paper recycling, can be used to enrich soil, improve retention of water and nutrients, and increase productivity.

READ MORE: The Royal Norfolk Show will return in 2021 – but perhaps not as we know it

The event was sponsored by the Norwich-based British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) which shared lessons learned during 2019, when the ban on protective chemicals and the extreme weather conditions created a major challenge for sugar beet growers – but research work in East Anglia helped to mitigate the adverse impacts.

Dr Simon Bowen, the BBRO’s knowledge exchange lead, said 2019 was the first year of growing crops without the now-banned neonicotinoid seed treatments which helped protect crops against aphids carrying infections such as virus yellows, capable of causing a 30-50pc loss in yield.

But despite record numbers of the pest, he said the establishment of a comprehensive aphid monitoring system, linked to a timely and targeted use of foliar insecticides, helped avoid a serious widespread virus epidemic.

Exhbitiors at the Royal Norfolk Show's Virtual Innovation Hub included Crop4Sight, a digital product allowing potato growers to benchmark crop development and make timely interventions to improve their yield. Picture: Crop4SightExhbitiors at the Royal Norfolk Show's Virtual Innovation Hub included Crop4Sight, a digital product allowing potato growers to benchmark crop development and make timely interventions to improve their yield. Picture: Crop4Sight

During a podcast debate, he said: “Historically we have been able to use neonic seed treatments which protect the plants in their early stages of growth when they are most susceptible, but the loss of these has meant we need to think very differently about how we manage this problem.

“Firstly we need to know what the aphids are doing, where they are over the winter, and how they will come into the crop. There are a number of systems established in the UK as part of a national forecasting network, and more specifically we have set up a network of stations around the sugar beet area using what we call yellow water pan traps where we can capture aphids and identify them to build up a picture really quickly.

“But more importantly, we can tell if these aphids are carrying the virus. We have invested heavily in the very latest technology to test for the presence of the virus very quickly, and that is all connected through to a whole combined system of forecasting of where to use a very targeted use of foliar insecticides, whereas before everything got a seed treatment. We are now focusing on targeting pesticides into locations where they are needed.”

READ MORE: Cattle champions thrilled to win Royal Norfolk Show rosettes at virtual competition

Dr Bowen said the BBRO is also looking at how to encourage greater numbers of beneficial predatory insects such as ladybirds and lacewings, including by growing strips of phacelia and buckwheat in or around sugar beet crops.

Exhbitiors at the Royal Norfolk Show's Virtual Innovation Hub included Crop4Sight, a digital product allowing potato growers to benchmark crop development and make timely interventions to improve their yield. Picture: Crop4SightExhbitiors at the Royal Norfolk Show's Virtual Innovation Hub included Crop4Sight, a digital product allowing potato growers to benchmark crop development and make timely interventions to improve their yield. Picture: Crop4Sight

“Last year that worked quite effectively, but this year has been more of challenge because we have seen a massive early infestation of aphids into the crop, which meant pretty much everything needed treating, but we saw that coming and having that infirmation is critical for us to work with the growers to make sure they are ready.”

Dr Bowen said the BBRO is also looking at how to encourage greater numbers of beneficial predatory insects such as ladybirds and lacewings, including by growing strips of phacelia and buckwheat in or around sugar beet crops.

Among the other exhibitors was David Clarke, a Norfolk-based soils and farming systems technician at NIAB, who explained how an innovative new phosphate management strategy has been introduced to a 120-year-old farming experiment in Suffolk.

The Saxmundham Experimental Site was started in 1899 to compare the benefits of traditional farmyard manure with mineral fertiliser applications.

David Clarke, soils and farming systems technician at NIAB. Picture: NIABDavid Clarke, soils and farming systems technician at NIAB. Picture: NIAB

The century-old trial, supported by the Morley Agricultural Foundation, aims to unpick how soil and fertiliser management interact to drive crop yields. More recently, satellite imagery and soil scanning have also been introduced to help understand the impacts of the different soil treatments.

Mr Clarke said: “Phosphate (P) is essential to plant function but there are increasing environmental concerns from high soil P levels and limited availability of mined rock phosphate. This year the trials are being supplemented by new treatments to test an innovative new approach to P management strategies.

“Historically soil P availability has been the main driver of yield, however this did not appear to be the case in 2019, when the yield of winter wheat was good (over 10t/ha) across the Saxmundham site.

“Even higher yields were achieved in the treatment with regular applications of farmyard manure (12.6 t/ha), potentially as a result of the crop being able to better utilise the nitrogen fertiliser applied, and/or to benefit from nitrogen released through mineralisation as a result of the higher levels of soil organic matter.

Dr Simon Bowen of BBRO joined one of the podcasts at the Royal Norfolk Show's Virtual Innovation Hub, hosted by Agri-TechE. Picture: Chris Hill.Dr Simon Bowen of BBRO joined one of the podcasts at the Royal Norfolk Show's Virtual Innovation Hub, hosted by Agri-TechE. Picture: Chris Hill.

“Over the next five years these treatments hope to provide some answers to how best manage plant phosphate demands.”


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