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How Long Will it Take Farmers to Take Advantage of New Technology?

How Long Will it Take Farmers to Take Advantage of New Technology?

04 March 2014

ANALYSIS - Farming in the 21st century is facing new pressures that often cannot be met by techniques, systems and equipment developed over the last 50 year, writes Chris Harris.

And in another 50 years the need for new techniques to tackle situations and needs of a growing population with diminishing resources will become increasingly important.

The systems that have been developed over recent decades have been to maximise crop production, but now there is a need for more flexible techniques as farmers face requirements of changing world prices and volatile weather conditions and in Europe the Clean Water Directive and regulations such as the Single Payment scheme.

The demands now are to have a reduced environmental impact but at the same time it is expected that there is going to be tighter legislation, particularly in the EU and energy prices are likely to increase.

The agricultural sector is also likely to have to cope with ever more volatile food prices and weather conditions.

All these pressures coming into modern farming will require more flexible techniques and old beliefs that big is always better and the highest yields will deliver the highest profits might now be brought into question.

The modern farm is now more and more developing precision techniques to target the input into production and to reduce the environmental and cost implications.

More and more machines are being developed to control each and every step of plant growth and the trend has been for these machines to get bigger and bigger.

Mechanisation is getting bigger because of driver costs and the need to increase work rates while keeping costs down.

The new technology and techniques that are being developed can hone in precision plant care down to the individual plant and according to Prof Simon Blackmore from Harper Adams University in the UK, the development on new machinery does not always mean that bigger is best.

Prof Blackmore said that combine harvesters are now reaching a maximum size and if they grew much larger they would not be able to be transported and they are only suitable for large fields.

He said the growth in the size of machines has been driven by the need to fit the work into a small working window according to weather conditions and different machines are needed for different weather and soil conditions and different climates around the world.

But the growth in the size of the machines could in itself be reducing the size of the window and causing more problems through issues such as soil compaction.

Prof Blackmore said that if the soil was not damaged in the first place there would be no need to repair it, which takes up about 90 per cent of the energy going into cultivation.

”Why do we plough and harrow – to get good soil condition, but the best thing to do is leave it alone,” he said.

He added that there has to be changes to the current systems.

Fields are compacted by random tyre traffic, but by controlling the use of machinery and optimising the planning of their use and controlling the traffic on the farm savings can be made in fuel, time and inputs.

Larger wheels give a bigger contact area and the weight of the tractors and their loads all compound to compact the soil.

He said that many farms now have smaller numbers of large tractors rather than a large number of small tractors and this all helps to cause problems.

“Many operations are now over-powered and waste energy and the tractor is not matched to the implement,” he said.

He said that new technology and new thinking was needed – wireless communications, new sensors and techniques and automation.

Prof Blackmore said that it was wrong to think that automation and robotics would take agricultural jobs. While they might replace some semi-skilled jobs, the new technology will require more highly skilled workers.

Robotics can help to keep seeds, sprays and fertilisers at the correct levels and remove the constraints of machines and focus on the plants’ needs.

New technology can assist in planting and seeding depth and using micro-tillage.

Technology is also available to assist in crop scouting and mapping the farm using imaging techniques to target crops and soil and plant management.

He added that technology will also be developed to assist in phased harvesting to ensure the crop is harvested when it reaches the optimum state of development.

He said that while there will be a need for some large manned machines on some farms, agricultural machines will be a lot smarter in the future and although the technology for major advances is available now, the machines are not commercially available because at present there is not sufficient demand.

Chris Harris

Chris Harris

Top image via Shutterstock

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