THE COUNTRY’S FAVOURITE FARMER GIVES US HIS MONTHLY GUIDE TO AGRICULTURE IN BRITAIN FARMING INNOVATIONS – A ROBOTIC FUTURE
Since the invention of the plough, farmers have been on a never-ending mission to find ways to make agriculture more efficient, effective and economical. The ox and the horse have given way to self-driving tractors, robotic-pickers and gadgetry that could change the way we farm for ever. Five innovations in particular have caught my eye…
Quadcopters, multi-rotors or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – call them what you like, the truth is, this is the age of the drone. In the past few years they have become a cool fashion accessory, but farming is taking drone technology much more seriously. They’re already being fitted with sensors that monitor the soil from above, allowing the farmer to accurately pinpoint areas that need more fertiliser or water. Meanwhile, work has begun on creating drones that can plant and spray crops, track the weather, predict yields and even carry loads.
It seems strange that technology designed for life on Mars can be used to make crops grow better on Earth, but that’s exactly what is happening with trials of the Agri-Rover in Glasgow, a project funded by the UK Space Agency. Fitted with off-road tyres, aerials and cameras, the vehicle gathers soil samples that are then analysed for their nitrogen content. A robotic arm, designed to collect seeds and fruit, has also been tested. The Agri-Rover is self-steering and the on-board computer learns to recognise obstacles in the field – such as fences, tractors and livestock – to avoid collisions.
Keeping watch on a flock of ewes during lambing is one of the most crucial and stressful jobs for a sheep farmer. Now a design student in Loughborough has come up with an ingenious device that allows the shepherd to monitor the welfare of the animals from miles away by using a mobile phone app. Ollie Godwin’s solar-powered ear tag – about the size of a 50 pence piece – picks up on unusual changes to the ewe’s body temperature and heart rate, both important at detecting problems with birth. The tag then sends a notification to the farmer’s mobile phone. Ollie is confident it could save lives, especially on remote farms with large flocks.
Robotic milking machines are nothing new. But now the idea has been taken further with entirely automated cattle barns. A computer-run milking parlour is just one part of a system that looks after every aspect of dairying: it feeds the cows, clears slurry, washes the floor and monitors the temperature of the barn. Not everyone approves of ‘contactless’ farming like this, with concerns voiced over animal welfare, but supporters say that the herds are healthier as they are monitored 24 hours a day.
When it comes to predicting the future of farming, all eyes are on a small plot of land in Shropshire. This autumn – using an autonomous combine harvester with built-in computer mapping systems – a team at Harper Adams University harvested a crop of spring barley that was sown, grown and gathered without a single human entering the field. Now the researchers are hoping to use the crop to create the world’s first hands-free beer.
Taking to the skies – a farmer tests his drone in East Winch, Norfolk