No matter how it is collected, there is a broad agreement across the industry that by 2027 we will have a huge amount of data to base agronomic decisions on.
A wide range of systems including soil sensors, drones, fix-winged aeroplanes, boommounted cameras, and satellites are already capable of providing data for decision-making.
Hazel Doonan, head of crop protection at the Agricultural Industries Confederation, says: “In 10 years’ time one of the key skills for agronomists will be the ability to analyse and interpret the increasing amounts of data on all aspects of crop growth and soil mapping, and cut through to the information which is relevant for each field situation.
“With the availability of data from sources such as drones and satellites, I would anticipate there will be a reduction in the need for field working, allowing the agronomist more time to concentrate on interpreting the data.” Steve Patterson, global crop manager for cereals at Bayer, says one of the big changes will be what can be accomplished with image data.
He says: “I think that what we are able to do with image data in 10 years’ time will have advanced considerably, just think about the changes we have seen in mobile phone technology in the last 10 years.
Today we can see biomass from satellites, but in 10 years are we going to be able to see nutrient status or diseases? I think the changes here could be transformational.”
The theory is good but Ewan McFarlane, digital business development manager with Agrii, says the data has to be usable and easy to put into action.
“Unless we have data that can be aggregated, interpreted and made available through farm management systems, and then put into action using ‘menu-driven’ systems, it won’t work. It’s the same when it comes to providing data back – if it isn’t easy to do, it won’t happen.”
Professor Jimmy Burke, director of research and knowledge transfer at Origin, says: “We all understand the nature of the challenge. Annual cereal production needs to grow by almost one billion tonnes globally by 2050 compared to the two billion tonnes produced annually at present.
“More intensive production systems are needed, but at the same time we need to reduce the environmental impact of such systems. This challenge presents a huge opportunity for the United Kingdom to position itself as a global leader in ‘data-driven’ agriculture, while also delivering a highly competitive and sustainable agri-food industry.”
Origin has recently completed the acquisition of Resterra, a company which combines expertise in the use of the digital channel for farming with expertise in precision agriculture, data capture and analytics.
Prof Burke says: “Resterra’s existing capability will strongly complement the collaborative research partnership between Origin and University College Dublin which was announced on December 12, 2016. “The aim of the partnership is to build digitally-based and data-driven advisory tools for rapid and localised crop technology transfer.
The programme called CONSUS is a large-scale (€17.6/£14.8 million) strategic partnership which will optimise arable crop production through the creation of a scalable and adaptive Intelligent Crop Management Framework, and provide rapid, reliable, relevant, localised and timely information to farmers and agronomists, with recommendations for immediate day-by-day on-farm decisions.
“We are well placed to drive this agenda with our large number of agronomists on the ground throughout the UK and with a customer base of 30,000, this new research programme will deliver a stepchange in crop agronomy tools and practices. “‘Knowledge is king’ and Agrii’s new research and development programme will provide new data collection streams at large-scale and intensity.
By 2027, and perhaps well before this, we will have developed new approaches to managing inputs, managing soil health and mitigating losses through pests and disease while at the same time achieving higher yields and productivity.
Overall, our research effort will lead to actionable insights for agronomists and farmers that directly impact farm efficiency. “Agrii’s capability to integrate and analyse disparate agricultural data at scale will be significant. The ‘explosion’ of new and existing agricultural data sources is inevitable, and already happening, and this coordinated programme will create a market-leading Intelligent Crop Management Framework for Agrii.”
A clear flow of useable data to and from farms will help to solve a problem highlighted by Ewan McFarlane. At the present time Agrii only gets feedback on a small percentage of the recommendations made by its agronomists.
Data which confirms what has been done and when, as well as final results in terms of yields by sub-field areas, can help with future decision making. Mr McFarlane believes in 10 years’ time, a vast amount of data will flow in both directions.
Data collected on-farm raises the thorny issue of ownership of data, and while companies such as Agrii will want to protect the intellectual property in the recommendations they make, they are clear the ownership of the on-farm data remains firmly with the farmer.
An increasing reliance on data could leave farm business vulnerable in a way which is unfamiliar now. Chris Walsh, from NFU Mutual, says: “In 10 years’ time, we envisage a situation where farmers may need ‘cyber insurance’ to cover the risk of systems being hacked or data being lost. If a protester hacks into a network this could cause loss of reputation, fines, and, of course, business continuity issues.”
P.J. Walker, sales and support technician for RTK Farming, believes the company’s model of using RTK (Real Time Kinematic) networks to deliver greater precision from GPS will continue to gain ground over the next 10 years.
He says: “The way we will be farming in 10 years’ time means accuracy will be an absolute necessity. Everything is driving us in that direction: the move toward greater precision; the need to reduce the cost of inputs; and the increasing environmental pressure.”
He points out that while normal GPS can provide accuracy down to 30cm, RTK technology can put vehicles within 2.5cm of a location year in, year out.
He says: “Only about 30% of vehicles using GPS can achieve these levels of accuracy. More and more manufacturers are offering the option to have RTK fitted at manufacture or as a retro-fit.
“It makes sense for future farming where we will see an even greater need for precision and the precise implementation of data-driven decisions. However, it makes good sense today with the use of controlled traffic farming and greater precision in tasks.
“A farm that recently joined RTK Farming cut its diesel use by 15-20%, and we have seen reductions in pre-season costs of about £54 per acre, most of which is down to using less diesel.”