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Fields of the future: What will arable farming look like?

What will the future of arable farming look like? Farmers Guardian went in search of some of the new technology set to change the way we farm.

Changing approaches to growing

 

Seed potatoes are being grown aeroponically and in addition to being free from pests and diseases, are yielding more and costing less than when they are grown conventionally.

 

These are the findings of Airponix, which has patented a sterile fog generation system which supplies all the nutrients and water needed by the potatoes.

 

Anri Brand of the company says the fogging system is very low pressure. “We can do it economically and it allows the use of a lot less water.”

 

The fog droplets are said to allow each plant to receive the same amount of water and nutrients irrespective of where it is in the glasshouse, ensuring higher overall crop yields.

 

The system does not require LEDs or other artificial light sources and follows the natural season with slightly earlier planting than for conventional potatoes at the end of February, says Barry Robertson, horticultural production manager at Airponix.

 

Trials have so far been carried out in a cold glasshouse in Norfolk but an A-frame structure with a racking system is also being looked at which would enable the number of plants per square metre and therefore yield to be considerably higher than for arable land, according to the company.

 

Elite seed potatoes measuring up to 45mm in diameter have so far been successfully grown using tuber cuttings. In 2020 the aim is to trial growing tissue cultured plants.


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Intelligent digital farming

 

BASF is developing Smart Spraying in collaboration with Bosch as part of its xarvio digital farming solutions platform.

 

As the sprayer crosses the field, its on-board cameras record the vegetation over the entire area. A smart spraying management system analyses the sensor signals online and identifies the presence of a crop plant or weed.

 

The system then controls the sprayer nozzles and the herbicide is applied as needed. Weed-free areas, on the other hand, remain herbicide-free.

 

The entire procedure – scanning, identification, and application – takes just a few milliseconds and is performed in a single processing step.

 

Smart Spraying is connected to the xarvio Field Manager digital platform, which determines whether and which crop protection products are required by the crop in what quantity and when.

New tech for growing markets

 

Baby leaf salad sales are booming with a huge number of branded bagged salads competing for supermarket shelf space.

 

Year-round demand for the products is growing – particularly in the catering sector – but if UK growers are to meet it, there need to be advances in production techniques.

 

Hydroponics may be a way to increase commercial production, says Arnoud Witteveen of Saturn Bioponics.

 

“Soil brings in a lot of problems.” Being soil free could offer solutions, while Saturn’s modular system being trialled in commercial polyhouses could also bring better nutrition control of the growing plans, reduce pesticide use and increase shelf life.

 

According to Jim Stevens from the University of Essex the quality and quantity of light in growing systems have an impact on crop quality and yield. LEDs can be ‘tuned’ for specific purposes.

 

“Light is not just for photosynthesis,” he said. Blue light stimulated stomata opening, while green light encouraged stomata to close. The latter could be useful for decreasing the disease burden on plants, he said. “LEDs are cheap and only going to get cheaper.”

 

 

Cracking the hybrid wheat challenge

 

What does the wheat of the future look like? Improved yields and nutrient use efficiencies, drought and disease tolerance, as well as more reliable financial returns all sound pretty attractive.

 

And now that future is one step closer, with Syngenta’s first two hybrid wheat varieties submitted for registration in France and Denmark, meaning the first seed could reach farms by 2022/23.

 

“We’ve been developing hybrids for many crops over several years, and wheat is one of the last global crops to have the technology used on it,” says Rob Hiles, seeds business sustainability lead at Sygenta’s Jealott’s Hill research facility in Berkshire.

 

“Previous attempts were unsuccessful as it’s such a complex genome.”

 

Syngenta started investigating hybrid wheat breeding in 2010, and in 2014 it proved the concept could be successful. Since then it has focused on the purity process, trials and scaling up seed production, with 80,000 breeding lines developed each year – only one or two of which might make it to market.

 

Conventional breeding is delivering a yield increase of about 0.5-1% a year, whereas hybrid breeding can boost that to 1.6% by accelerating optimal variety selection, it is claimed.

 

Using gene markers, scientists can identify varieties which will have required traits at an early stage and predict how different breeding combinations will work.

 

However, hybrid wheat is not just about improved yields. “With the changing climate and environment, yield stability is just as important,” says Mr Hiles.

 

Farmers are looking for more robust rooting to give greater tolerance to drought or waterlogging, as well as improved nutrient use efficiencies and competition against weeds and disease.

Managing soil better

 

Scientists are working to better understand how soils respond to change. For example, research as part of the Soil Security Programme has looked at peat management in the Fens which is a particularly fragile area, with soils disappearing at a rate of 1-2cm per year.

 

Scientists have found that by raising the water table to 50cm below the surface reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent while maintaining yield.

 

Work is also underway to find out how farmers can harness the benefits provided by naturally occurring soil organisms such as mycorrhizal fungi.

 

PhD student George Crane is studying interactions between cover crops and so-called arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi with funding from ADHB and the AgriFood Charities Partnership.

 

He hopes that the work will result in useful advice for farmers on how they can tailor their rotations and chemical use to boost growth of mycorrhiza to have a positive impact on crop yields and soil health.

 

 

Farming with robots

 

The National Trust has recently invested in robotic weed mapping on its 600-hectare organic farm in Cambridgeshire.

 

The robot ‘Tom’ created and owned by the Small Robot Company has been trialled on the Wimpole Hall Estate farm and will now be used on a 20ha area to map broadleaved weeds.

 

Farm manager Callum Weir says it is an exciting project which would see ‘Tom’ create maps of the exact location of broad-leaved weeds in 20ha of organic wheat. This data would then aid management decisions for example where to use strategic roguing or harrowing or highlight areas that may benefit from a fertility building ley.

 

Next year, a second robot called ‘Dick’ will be trialled at the farm that will locate weeds and kill them using an electric probe, designed by Rootwave.

 

Other future developments are even more exciting, says Mr Weir. These could include deeper understanding or the health of plants, but there are also potential environmental gains that future developments could bring.

 

“In the future the robot may be able to let me know when and where I need to stop inter-row weeding for ground nesting birds. Or it could tell me where rare arable flora is so I can be sure that I don’t weed it out.” It may also be able to survey farmland birds, he added.

 

With the robot weighing just 150kg it is no danger to soil health too, he said.

 

“It gives us the ability to understand what is in in the field to a much more precise detail. It will help us be more profitable and help us deliver for nature too.”

 

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