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by Jack Thomson
11 March 2021
A field of opportunity: the role of digital technology in farming

Niall Jeffrey (left) and Sion Williams (right)

A field of opportunity: the role of digital technology in farming

Farming is on the verge of significant transformation as the sector comes to terms with the impact of Brexit, climate change and a change in support streams. 

The developing situation is expected to force the uptake of various innovative technologies at a much higher rate than the industry has seen in the past. More and more farmers are using equipment that monitors livestock or crops and sends an alert to their smartphone, informing them when something isn’t quite right – allowing them to step in at a crucially earlier stage. 

One of those embracing digital technology is Sion Williams, the farms manager at Bowhill Estate in Selkirk, a subsidiary of Buccleuch Estate. Bowhill is part of the Agri-EPI Centre’s satellite farm network, where technology is developed, tested and scientifically validated. Much of the focus of Williams’ work is beef, where technology has allowed him to focus manpower and save time. 

The first example is the ‘water weigher’, a piece of kit that is also referred to as a beef monitor. It’s a box with a trough fixed at the front – the animal walks on to it and takes a drink. 

Williams tells Holyrood: “It weighs the animal as it’s drinking the water, whereas in normal practice for us to weigh and get data on that animal we end up having to pull the whole lot out of a pen and put them all over a weigh platform, weigh them all and put them back in the pen. 

“Obviously there’s quite a bit of stress involved for the animal from that point of view, so it reduces that. But the other benefit is it gives the weight information on that animal in real time. Whenever the animal goes in to get a drink, it has to go on to the weigh platform to get weighed. It doesn’t feel anything, all it hears is a beep to say that it’s read the tag and recorded it against the software.”

The second main element of technology Williams uses is a bolus that allows him to gather more precise information on individual cows in a herd. These are sensors which sit inside a cow’s reticulum and automatically record body temperature and activity, while using data to predict a calving window or make the farmer aware via an app on their phone if it has a fever. 

“It’s basically a tablet, but it’s obviously for cows,” he says, holding up a small white cylindrical object. “That sits in a cow’s stomach. There’s a battery and antenna inside it that basically speaks to a base station in a shed or in a water trough in the field and that uploads data from this and puts it up to a technology cloud in the sky. We can import data on that animal to see what it’s doing.

“So what that bolus does, it tells us the temperature of the animal, it tells us how mobile she is – so if she’s moving about or is she quite relaxed for the day – and there’s algorithms able to pick up that data and combine them to look at when the animal is looking for the bull, when it’s looking to calve, if it has a fever and these types of situations. 

“For us, what it means is we can manage a lot better on an individual animal basis, whereas in the past we’d have to send someone around looking at these cows all the time.”

Niall Jeffrey, a satellite farmer at Bielgrange in Dunbar, has tested a variety of technologies, including a collar which monitors a cow’s fertility and health. 

“It’s bit like a Fitbit for a cow,” he tells Holyrood. “It monitors activity on the animal. It’s positioned on a certain area of the neck so when they’re chewing cud, when they’re eating, when they’re drinking, it can pick up just by motion detection what they’re doing. 

“The other thing it does is it detects oestrous activity, so when the cows start coming in heat to be mated, to be cycling, it detects at which stage they are in heat, in oestrous detection.”

Jeffrey has also been testing drones that monitor the progress of his crops from above – a project which he is evidently enthusiastic about. He is working with a company called Dark Horse Technologies, completing in-season surveys to watch crops, diagnose any growth problems and predict yield. 

He adds: “We’re measuring the green leaf area of the plant through the season and seeing what’s happened after we do an application of fertiliser or what happens if there’s a fungus attack on the plants. We see what that looks like from above. 

“We’re hopefully going to use it to lower or target our inputs better – a more targeted approach to fertiliser use and possibly a more targeted approach to pesticides or plant products like that.”

It’s becoming clear there are gadgets being developed that are giving farmers the data to make well-informed decisions at an earlier stage in the production cycle. As some farmers throw themselves into technological transformation, others are likely to follow suit in the future – just as they have done in the past.

Dr Hannah Rudman, senior challenge research fellow and data policy lead at Scotland’s Rural College, says: “If you think about it, farmers have always been technologists. They graduated to tractors from horses and carts because of the timesaving and efficiency gains of using them.

“Farmers want to look after their land, they want to do their jobs, they want to grow the best food, they want to be a part of the natural economy, so any way they can use digital technologies to enable that helps them.”

The willingness to embrace technology is considered imperative by some in a sector where margins have been thinning for some time. Williams adds: “Things are quite difficult in the food industry as far as profitability, making money, making things efficient enough so that you can survive… It’s not the case of saving pounds now, it’s a case of you saving pennies. These are the type of things that you invest in to save.”

So, what does this mean for the industry going forward and how might farming look in the decades to come? Dave Freeman, business area manager for agriculture at Ricardo, an engineering and environmental consultancy company, believes the sector is on the “cusp of another revolution”. 

He predicts a shift in the expertise needed in agriculture: “The view of the future is good, productive agriculture, producing really high-quality food with minimal inputs, huge amounts of technology supporting that to help make sure that the environmental footprint of farming is as low as it can be.

“We might still see lots of the same sort of produce being developed and produced, but there will be some stark changes in terms of how we do produce that. 

“You might not see it from Holyrood, but actually once you go on to a farm, we’ll be having people who are coders, we’ll be having people who are data analysts, remote sensing geospatial experts, people who are experts in animal nutrition and genetics. 

“These are jobs which sit in the colleges at the minute, but in the future, they’re going to be some of the jobs that we need people to be able to deliver on farm.”

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