Big data and precision farming are the buzz words of agriculture nowadays, so we find out more about what technology is bringing to the industry in these areas and how it can benefit your business.
Innovation Week, run by one of the four government-funded UK Agri-Tech centres, Agri-EPI Centre, was held at the end of May. It served as a celebration of innovation and ground-breaking developments in agricultural technology. Each day explored the impact of agri-tech on farms and the wider agricultural industry, and what the future of agri-tech looks like.
We look at three specific areas being investigated, covering the dairy, beef and arable sectors.
Video games and the agricultural industry – what’s the connection?
Possibly the most unexpected presentation during Innovation Week was from a video game developer during the session on animal behaviour and welfare. The connection turned out to be data.
According to game developer Gary McCartan, much of the data collected and used on dairy farms is kept in ‘siloed’ software systems and even on paper. “This leaves it disconnected, unable to be integrated and restricts its access to the wider farm team,” said Gary. “By taking an augmented reality (AR) approach to cow recognition, SmARtview provides a system which can be used at any time anywhere – even right beside the animal out in the field.”
His vision for the dairy industry lies in the use of a HoloLens, a head-mounted display or smartglasses. Wearing the headset, farmers could simply look at a cow and the device would recognise the animal and pull up its unique data. This way, any aspect of a cow’s health or behaviour can be recorded or diagnosed there and then. “It has to be easy to understand and engaging,” suggested Gary. “We also see a well-designed product as one which anyone can pick up and use intuitively with minimal training.”
But of course, not everyone is a gamer and familiarity with AR technology is still limited. “To overcome this, we’re taking a step-by-step approach,” says Gary. “Within the software we’re creating, we have a mobile phone version to help users become familiar with it before introducing a newer device.”
But Gary firmly believes the future of data management and precision agriculture will come through machine learning and AR technology, and it will become commonplace in many sectors, including agriculture: “Twenty years ago we may not all have had a mobile phone, but now everyone is connected digitally. Back then we never imagined how smartphones would change our lives, just as we can’t see how different the world will be in another 20 years due to machine learning and these emerging technologies. I can see a day when no-one is using a mobile phone anymore, but a headset instead.”
Taking carcass evaluation to a new level
Most beef cattle in the UK are over-finished. The excess fat produced simply becomes a waste product in the abattoir, but has cost farmers financially to produce in extra time and feed. This supply chain inefficiency is compounded by the extra processing requirements in the abattoir and the environmental cost of additional greenhouse emissions from stock remaining on farm longer than necessary.
Traditionally, cattle aren’t classified until slaughter, so farmers can’t be sure of an animal’s conformation before making decisions about which animals are selected for the abattoir. The classification process is also carried out manually, and although staff are highly trained, it comes with the degree of inconsistency seen in the assessment of any ‘natural’ product such as livestock.
New technologies are set to change this. The OPTI-BEEF project is a collaboration of experts within the beef industry, science and precision engineering companies aiming to provide a far more comprehensive picture of the carcass throughout an animal’s life.
Starting on the farm, feeding and water troughs have been developed with an integrated weight platform and are being trialled at Scotland’s Rural College beef research unit. Whenever the troughs are used, the weight of each animal is recorded giving real time performance data. Any water and feed intake changes also help monitor the animal’s health status.
The technology has been further extended through the integration of advanced 3D imaging. This allows 3D imagery of the carcass to be captured when livestock are using the troughs, giving farmers more information about carcass values pre-slaughter.
“And this is where the technology’s value is really found,” said Andrew Loftus, Senior Adviser at Hectare Agritech Ltd. “A time series of weight and a predicted classification gives farmers far better information from which to make informed decisions about slaughter selection.”
The current classification system is a relatively crude measure which evaluates overall yield of saleable meat, whereas this new technology opens up possibilities for measuring a wider range of attributes. Fat sensing and specific cut yields are two examples. Although some fat is a waste product, other fat has value. Intramuscular fat, often known as marbling, is the fat found within a muscle and is related to eating quality. This contrasts with the excess subcutaneous fat around the muscles, seen in over-finished animals. Knowing the quantities of each fat type is central to establishing carcass value.
“Being able to evaluate the yield of specific cuts is also important as consumer trends change over time,” continued Andrew. “There is less value in the UK market for the ‘round’ cuts these days, such as the topside and silverside. Like the US market, we are moving towards favouring the loin – not just in size but shape too for greater portion control and increased value.
“More sophisticated measurement and characterisation will allow abattoir specifications to evolve with price incentives for farmers. OPTI-BEEF gives us huge opportunity to optimise the supply chain in an area that was previously under-invested.”
Increased specificity benefits the farmer and the environment
With productivity fundamental to farm profitability, being able to predict crop yield accurately is vital for arable farmers. So, too, is preventing crop loss from pests, weeds or disease. Using multiple data sources including drone-gathered images, new modelling technology can now identify preventable disease and weeds in the earliest stages of presentation, often before being noticed by the farmer. This puts farmers on the front foot, allowing them time to make decisions about how best to protect their crops.
Developed by Omega Crop, its CEO, Jared Bainbridge, explains: “Omega Crop is a crop modelling company employing a range of satellite and other remote data sources combined with anything collected in the field by the farmer. This can be from a drone, in-ground sensor, mobile phone or other form of information source. We then layer this in our analysis to predict crop yields to within 0.5% and map crop loss events with unparalleled specificity. For example, we can tell where yellow rust or blackgrass is occurring at a plant-by-plant level, enabling early and highly specific interventions and decreasing costs while protecting yield.”
Having such specific information so early means that farmers can make more accurate management decisions. Crop protection can be timely and targeted, reducing the need for blanket spraying. In turn, this increases productivity yield and reduces both production costs and the environmental impact of widespread spray applications.
“The Omega Crop platform integrates with existing farm equipment to target crop protection solutions on an individual plant basis,” adds Jared. “Plant-level weed mapping is another example of how farming is responding to environmental demands.”
Further details of all these projects can be found at: www.agri-epicentre.com
While some new technology ideas seem a bit ‘pie in the sky’ when first described and in their infancy, innovation takes industry forward and agriculture is no exception. It might be a while before HoloLens become a largescale reality on dairy farms, whether due to functionality or cost, but crop yield prediction is not new and will continue to benefit arable farmers as it becomes more refined. And for the beef industry, Brexit means now is the time to review our use of the EUROP grid classification and how a UK-specific system could provide better returns for our beef producers.
Farmers are currently seeing the biggest changes in agriculture for more than 50 years. As a mutual insurer, we’ve stood by South West farmers since 1903 and through our Future Farming Programme, we are helping our Members and the wider farming community navigate the changes ahead in this transformative time.Future Farming