The digital world of crop production

Agriculture has an increasingly hi-tech approach (pic John Bloxsome)

David Knight, chairman of CPRE Essex, reports from a fascinating day learning about agricultural innovation

At this time of year, it is difficult to walk, cycle or motor through the countryside without noticing the varied greens and quickly approaching gold of the cereal crops growing in the fields.
However, how much do we all know about the technical techniques that are deployed in their production?
The other day I attended an event hosted by Agrii at Throws Farm Technology Centre at Stebbing (Agrii is a leading provider of agronomy services, technology and strategic advice to the farming industry).
While I found it fascinating to hear how many varieties of wheat were available to provide the best match to the soil, climate and customers across the UK, what impressed me most was the way in which ‘hi-tech’ is being embraced and used to improve yields, reduce the quantity of fertilisers used and, just as importantly, stop them from finding their way into water courses.
In this digital age a typical plant-to-harvest-cycle could work like this:

  • Each field has its boundary digitally plotted.
  • Crop-yield data are taken very precisely by the combine harvesters both in terms of grain and position within the field. Exact location is determined by GPS (Global Positioning System). This is a modified GPS accurate to within two centimetres.
  • These data are delivered back to the farm office (usually using a USB stick), where they are used to establish the planting spacing in various parts of the field and the amount of fertilisers needed across each part of the field.
  • The new crop is sown using an ‘intelligent’ drilling machine. By using the field boundary data and a GPS system, the tractor is self-steered, allowing the most efficient path to be created that stops overlapping of the crop-sowing and the fertiliser distribution. If, for instance, the scatter path of the fertiliser encroaches too close to a watercourse, the drilling machine will automatically shut off distribution in that particular area.
  • Germination takes place and, using a form of satellite imagery, the colour of the field is taken. This clearly shows if further fertilisers are needed in parts of the field. If so, fertiliser is applied but only where it is needed and at the lowest point possible so that it’s not wasted or has harmful effects on the environment
  • The crop is harvested and the cycle starts again.

Of course, this type of approach is very expensive in terms of capital equipment, but in a world of ever-increasing demand for higher yield and reduced detrimental effects on the environment it must be the way forward.
Next time you see a tractor working in a field, bear a thought for the hi-tech world in which it could be working.

Footnote: Many thanks to all those involved at Agrii for making this a very worthwhile and enjoyable day 

Monday, July 15, 2019