A new farm-based research project aims to investigate how new technologies can be successfully linked with knowledge to enable agronomists to deliver the advice growers need.
The rapid pace of innovation in agritechnology is both exciting and challenging. Development in robotics, sensors and agrimetrics, for example, provide enormous potential for improving the efficiency and sustainability of arable farming yet ensuring these new technologies can be effectively integrated into farm practice remains a significant challenge.
According to crop production business Hutchinsons, this means that the current agronomist and grower relationship will need to evolve if these challenges are to be met over the next 10 years and, says the company, utilising technology will be a significant part of this.
Hutchinson’s head of technology and Innovation, Stuart Hill, says: “We are being exposed to a plethora of technologies such as data analytics, climate, machine learning, sensors, monitoring, detection systems, autonomy and robotics. However, there is a need to evaluate which technologies are relevant and ultimately increase productivity and profitability, as well as efficiency, both for the grower and the agronomist.”
A new project initiated by Hutchinsons aims to do just this. Claimed to be the first of its kind in the UK, the Helix project has been designed to assess how technologies can be successfully linked with knowledge to deliver a greater level of advice by agronomists to farm businesses.
The project will focus on key areas of innovation and technology, acting as a central research hub bringing together all aspects of crop production through to field data and input measurement.
From sensors and prediction software, soil management and analysis to environmental aspects, such as surveillance and predictive systems, nutrition, input and new trait technologies will also be assessed and developed within the Helix project, says Mr Hill.
“Growers and agronomists want simplicity, so linking of technologies and knowledge will lead to decision-making through a one-hub system approach, Omnia,” he adds.
Underpinning the Helix project will be a national Helix technology development farm, hosted by Northamptonshire growers Andrew and William Pitts, of J.W. Pitts and Sons.
The aim is for the project to be based around full-scale working farms, where the impact of new technology can be measured not only on yields, but on productivity, efficiency and the farm environment.
Andrew Pitts, who farms at Mears Ashby and Whiston with his brother William, says: “I’m very pleased to be working alongside such a forward-thinking business as Hutchinsons. We are running more than 1,700 acres here and our aim is to be productive, efficient and ultimately profitable, otherwise we have no farm. The relationship with the agronomist in future will adapt to this and will, with the use of technologies, become more strategic and inclusive of whole farm advice.
“The technology revolution is here and we need to ensure these are relevant, applicable and straightforward to use for all our benefit. I see a future when we will spend much less time field walking with the technologies available and more time on strategic discussion about the farm and sustainability.”
Working alongside the Pitts are Hutchinsons agronomists James MacWilliam and Michael Shemilt. Hutchinsons describes Mr Shemilt as the ‘pilot’ agronomist of the future, testing and managing technologies with the farm to understand how they will work and their value in the farm scale situation.
Work is already underway on the farm on areas such as climate and pest prediction, nutrition technology, variety trait work and environmental sustainability.
“We will aim to demonstrate these technologies by various means and not just the traditional farm open days. After all, this is about use and benefit of technologies, so technology will be used to demonstrate it," adds Mr Hill.
The Helix project will initially focus on three key project areas that will align new and old technologies, evolving and developing these to improve crop management decisions.
Underpinning the development of Helix are the results from a recent Hutchinsons grower survey which asked a diverse group of progressive arable businesses to identify their key concerns over the next 10 years.
Respondents to the survey, which was conducted by Hutchinsons’ agronomists, including Herefordshire-based Andrew Goodinson, identified profitability, agronomics, staffing and technology as their main business challenges over the next 10 years.
Mr Goodinson says: “It was certainly clear when talking to growers that they felt they would need to develop a stable business not reliant on subsidies using existing resources, and to do this they would need to become more efficient through attention to detail.
“They felt that future technologies, such as satellite images as well as the use of diagnostic tools, would become increasingly common, and that variable rate applications would become the norm. This was alongside the need to harmonise different systems to have a paperless recording base.
“In order to do this, farmers would expect agronomists of the future to have wider access to information and solutions, become data interpreters, less field walkers and be ahead of the game in terms of skills and technology developments.”