Post-Brexit, driving efficiencies and cost control will become more important than ever.
The Knight Frank’s Rural Report looks at ten technologies that could help farmers and land managers increase productivity and efficiencies, and create lower cost bases.
01. DIGITAL FARMING
Combining data science with advanced sensors, precision location tools and automation, digital farming provides growers with real-time insights into what’s happening in a field, helping guide decisions that could increase yields.
This spring Yara and tech company IBM announced their plan to become leaders in the movement with their Digital Farming platform, which will provide farmers with everything from hyper-local weather forecasts to real-time recommendations for individual crops.
With worldwide coverage, the platform plans to reach close to 7% of the world’s arable land, including small farms. The first services are expected by the end of the year.
02. BIG DATA
Huge amounts of data are being collected by smart devices and sensors on farms every day, prompting the development of systems to help people make sense – and use – of it all.
Data platform Climate FieldView collects, stores and analyses information across farms to monitor and improve crop performance thanks to informed agronomic decisions.
Owned by Bayer following its purchase of Monsanto, it uses sensors to collect information on everything from soil type to field regions, which it then interprets to guide management decisions and raise productivity – including which seed varieties to select to achieve higher yields.
The subscription service was developed initially for use in maize crops in the US, where almost 600,000 hectares of farmland is currently signed up at a cost of US$1/acre. Roll out into Europe is imminent, and while it will focus on maize initially, other crops will be added.
03. SATELLITE MAPPING
According to industry experts, more than half of nitrogen fertilisers are wasted because they aren’t applied at the right time or at the correct dose.
Satellite mapping tools help farmers to apply what the plant actually requires instead of the “flat rate” approach and this reduces waste and results in more consistent output.
Many firms already offer this in the UK, but Swedish start-up Vultus claims it can cut leaching from nitrogen fertiliser by as much as 40%, saving the average farmer over £13,000 per year while increasing yields and crop quality. It is currently developing its platform after being awarded more than £200,000 in funding last year, and will cost farmers £5/hectare for annual analysis.
From checking on livestock and crops to more sophisticated soil and field analysis, drone technologies have quickly evolved from novelty gadgets to invaluable tools on farms.
While prices start at a few hundred pounds for basic models with short flight times, more specialist equipment can run into the thousands.
UK-based DroneAg offers complete systems that produce plant counts and establishment checks, detect weeds and disease, and measure nitrogen and biomass for £8,000 to £11,000.
Precision spraying systems, flight training and certification cost extra.
05. AUGMENTED REALITY
It may be fairly new to agriculture, but the potential of augmented reality (AR) for farmers is generating considerable excitement and investment.
From inspecting fields to detect pests and insects, to determining the quality of land to decide which crops will best grow there, AR uses sensors to collect data that builds up a detailed picture of a crop and how the landscape behaves and evolves.
Startup Plant Vision is currently working with Wageningen University in the Netherlands to create what it calls a “hands-free system for understanding plants”. While it’s still in development, it says its AR systems will be a bridge to automation and much cheaper than robots.
06. MINI ROBOTS
Shunning traditional big kit, tech companies are realising that small machinery is the answer to more efficient, precise and environmentally sustainable farming.
The Small Robot Company is developing tiny robots that will go out into fields and care for plants individually, cutting costs and reducing waste by only feeding and spraying plants that actually need it.
By focusing on plants’ needs, they claim they can increase farm revenues by 40% while cutting costs by 60% – all while reducing soil compaction and using fewer chemicals.
The first round of monitoring robots are currently in trials, while weeding robot trials are expected in October.
07. GENE EDITING
With the potential to speed up the development of hardier, more productive and nutritious crops, gene editing has been hailed as one of the next major developments in crop production.
Unlike genetic modification – which involves inserting new genetics into a plant to create a new trait – gene editing is a highly-targeted breeding technique that involves scientists removing negative traits from a plant.
But while scientists have been getting excited about the possibilities for agriculture, it seems that farmers across Europe won’t be getting their hands on the tech any time soon.
Last year, the European Court of Justice ruled that gene-edited plants must come under the GMO Directive – a stringent rule that has resulted in GM technology being all but shut out of the EU.
08. VERTICAL FARMING
With growing urban populations and increasing competition for space, experts claim vertical farming offers a sustainable way to feed cities.
Typically using spaces in warehouses or skyscrapers, vertical farming involves plants being stacked in layers, where they are lit by low-energy LED lighting and fed by nutrient-rich misters – eradicating the need for soil and slashing water consumption.
There are countless startups already in operation and making impressive claims: Canadian company VertiCrop says its system can produce 20 times more yield while using just 8% of the water typically needed for soil farming.
09. DAIRY MONITORS
From heat detection to rumination and injury alerts, gadgets to monitor cows are increasingly commonplace on dairy units.
Edinburgh-based IceRobotics is one of the biggest names in dairy tech thanks to its cloudbased data collection system – the first of its kind in the world.
Utilising a series of wearable sensors, the company’s services include fertility and health monitoring and automated mobility scoring, helping farmers reduce treatment costs and boost productivity.
Individual sensors are priced around £70, while there is also an installation cost for the sensor or a monthly rental fee.
The biggest buzzword in tech circles, “blockchain”, allows businesses to record and share information in a way that can’t be altered thanks to its use of cryptography.
As well as having implications for food safety and traceability by allowing farmers to record production data, it could also help improve production by streamlining operations and driving sustainability.
Blockchain startup ripe.io is already making waves in the tech world thanks to its system that tracks the ripeness, colour and flavour of tomatoes, helping farmers determine when a plant is ready to be harvested.
Sainsbury’s and Unilever are also trialling the technology to create green contracts for farmers in Malawi to track inputs and receive a premium for using them sustainably.