Adam Hen­son


Countryfile Magazine - - November In The Country - Ask Adam: What topic would you like to know more about? Email your sug­ges­tions to ed­i­tor@coun­try­

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

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