For many farmers using new technology on-farm can be a daunting prospect and fuelled with a misconception it is only relevant for larger, progressive units. Clemmie Gleeson speaks to two farmers whose practical decisions have improved their overall business.
The realisation that decisions on his family farm near Arbroath, on the east coast of Scotland, were based on tradition rather than facts, inspired Robert Ramsay to gather as much data as possible.
“I came out of university with an agricultural degree and went home to the farm,” he explains.
“Basically everything was decided on what was traditionally being done. So I started yield mapping to test people’s assumptions.”
He soon found ways to reduce costs on the 600ha arable farm, including implementing precision farming techniques.
Since then he has developed his use of technology further and uses his expertise to help other farmers to innovate in their own businesses.
“A lot of other farmers were also trying precision farming but didn’t really get on with it, so Jim Wilson and I started the precision farming company SoilEssentials in 2000.”
On his own farm, Robert found most damage to yields was due to compaction. A move to controlled traffic boosted yields, while also making a 40 per cent saving in time and fuel costs versus the conventional plough and drill system.
“I spent about a year thinking and preparing and then just did it,” he says.
Meanwhile, Soil Essentials was developing Scottish-specific programmes and the company grew steadily as word was shared about its successes.
“Now we are working on many projects with other organisations, including Innovate UK and the European Space Agency,” he says.
The company’s innovations include TuberZone, which uses technologies including satellites and drones to gather and combine data.
“So effectively what you can do is map every part of the potato field for projected yield and tuber size.”
Another project with the James Hutton Institute is SoilBio, which uses soil testing, including DNA testing of nematodes, to give indications of soil health.
“Jim and I are both practical farmers so don’t put anything out there we wouldn’t use ourselves. These initiatives are very much within reach of everybody but they do require attention to detail and management.”
Farmers often find it easier to be innovative with diversification projects than their farm business, says Robert.
“I have noticed farmers can be quite conservative in the way they farm, but if they go into renewables or something else different they are very innovative.”
He believes this is down to the time it takes for changes to the farm to be fully experienced.
“Changing something can take five years for it to bed in,” he says. “Also everybody can see what you do. There are huge motivations to be very careful. However, if you build a biodigester or something, then you have already nailed your colours to the mast that you are doing something different.
“That gives you the freedom to make mistakes and innovate. You will never be able to innovate unless you are willing to fail a bit sometimes.”
Setting up a dairy herd from scratch with minimal capital required some extreme innovative thinking on the part of business partners Tom Foot and Neil Grigg.
They looked for tenant farms from which to set up their herd but were unable to find anything with the required buildings. Eventually they secured a tenancy of 324 hectares, but the terms meant it was not viable to invest in permanent buildings.
“There was a term that there would be no compensation for tenancy improvements at the end of the five years,” explains Tom.
So they created a bespoke solution by adapting temporary parlours – typically rented to farmers for a month or so while their permanent parlours were refitted or updated.
“It meant we could milk 500 cows with very little money. We had very little borrowing capacity, but with Neil’s accounting skills and my practicality we made it work.”
The duo visited a dairy farmer using an Arthur Hosier mobile parlour on the Somerset levels and adapted those ideas.
“First we used hired parlours, then we built our own in years two and three. It has taken four years to evolve the system,” explains Tom.
With the original Hosier system cows were in a smaller abreast parlour on the ground, but Tom’s redesigned version included hydraulics to make it more portable.
He also greatly increased the size from eight-aside to 20-aside, enabling 40 cows to be milked at a time.
By year three, the milking system was working well, although Tom continued to make changes, such as having steps up to the parlour rather than ramps. Similarly, other aspects of management of the 800-cow herd have been tweaked in recent years, including details such as the size of the collecting yard used at milking times.
“We initially kept them small, like conventional yards with the cows kept nice and tight, but this created lameness from the cows squabbling to get past each other. Now we’ve gone to a 2ha collecting yard. The cows continue to graze and lie down and they have space to move. They have a distinct pecking order so will come in to the parlour in their own order.”
Initially the farm delivered milk to a local cheese factory using a tanker and chilling facilities which were loaned to them.
“We did that for the first two years and then bought an army lorry with a tank, installed a washing system and hired a bigger chiller.”
Business goals are regularly reviewed and refined but now with the herd very much up and running, Tom plans to start milk recording and take steps to increase efficiency.
Tom admits he gets a ‘kick’ out of being different.
“However that wasv not the reason we went down this route. You need to look at your business and if the ‘recipe’ isn’t right then you need to look at everything you can – alternative ideas and opportunities.
“Don’t be different for the sake of being different.”
The main challenge of doing something innovative is not being able to learn from other people’s experiences and mistakes.
“We have been learning from our own mistakes which has been a huge cost to the business,” says Tom.
However, Tom and Neil have been members of a discussion group with other forward-thinking farmers. “It is so important to surround yourself with good people, listen to their advice and act on it,” Tom says.
Agri-Innovation Den is back for 2019 with an all new format and a fantastic business development prize package worth £40,000.
The competition, supported by BASF and Farm491, is designed to showcase new developments in agricultural technology, and we are inviting entrepreneurs from across the UK to pitch their concept and explain why it could revolutionise UK farming.
Ensuring new and progressive technologies have an opportunity to thrive is one of the biggest challenges faced by any industry and Agri-Innovation Den aims to facilitate this growth within agriculture.
We want to hear from individuals who are developing new technology for the agricultural industry.
In return we are offering a bespoke publicity, mentoring and business support package, alongside access to a network of progressive industry professionals who can help take your business to the next level.
Whether you have a pioneering piece of software, a working technology, a dynamic approach to precision data or a concept you are confident will make a difference to farmers, we want to hear all about it.
Finalists will be invited to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges at Farm491, Cirencester, on November 21, 2019.