Tools & data

Background

How technology helps monitor farm production and environment

Precision technology is allowing farms that practice integrated farm management (IFM) to balance the demands of commercial production with care for the environment, while also meeting their sustainability challenges.

IFM is a whole-farm business approach that delivers more sustainable farming and there are currently more than 1,000 food producers who are members of the Linking Environment and Farming (Leaf) marque.


  • Photo: Tim Scrivener

    Photo: Tim Scrivener

Some of these farmers, along with researchers, are seeing the benefits of technology. Future Farming looks at how farmer Paul Hayward and researcher Alastair Leake are making technology work for them.

See also: Does technology have all the answers for soil compaction?

Case study 1: Pea yield and wildlife benefits

At Cold Harbour Farm in Bishop Burton near Beverley, Humberside, there has been a determined effort to make the best use of everything that precision farming technology has to offer.

A Linking Environment and Farming (Leaf) demonstration farm, the 532ha (215-acre) beef and arable business is run as a family partnership, with grower Paul Hayward being enthusiastic about how precision farming has helped them to raise production and management standards, especially with niche crops.

“The technology has to deliver something in order to earn its keep, as it isn’t cheap,” he says. “Fortunately, we have seen savings and greater efficiencies since we embarked on this journey, and we expect that to continue.”


  • Photo: Tim Scrivener

    Photo: Tim Scrivener

He grows winter wheat, vining peas, oilseed rape, barley and spring beans across 472ha (190 acres), with a further 60ha (24 acres) of grass used for a 140-head beef enterprise.

Investment in data tools has a price tag

Investment in real time kinematic (RTK) guidance, satellite controlled sprayer and spreader, soil mapping, variable rate nitrogen, yield mapping and grain dryer control has taken place over the years, all of which came with a price tag, he acknowledges.

“As a team, we are all committed to it. Our vining peas are grown for Birds Eye, as part of a co-operative, so we’ve made particularly good use of what precision farming can do to produce that crop to the required standards.”

Mr Hayward reports increases in yield and margins, as well as input savings, across the board. “We’ve been able to target our inputs better and get the most from them.”

Advantages of auto-steer

Waste has been minimised, as has run-off, while environmental benefits have also been recorded, thanks to improved accuracy and better timeliness.

- Improves workrates

“Investing in autosteer means that we’ve seen our workrates improve, as well as our fuel efficiency, as we have eliminated overlaps,” he adds.

He also believes they have been able to make more informed decisions, thanks to the detailed information they have been getting back from the tractor cab.

- Health & safety benefits

“There’s been a health and safety benefit, too. Our workforce is less tired, so we are all less liable to make mistakes. That has to be a good thing.”

In the field, he has been able to make use of precision drilling with his vining pea crop, which has been invaluable in the recent dry spring.

“They were placed at the right depth for moisture, so we got rapid, even establishment. It means we will also get even maturity and maximum yield.”

- Reduces number of harvesters needed

Autosteer has enabled the number of vining pea harvesters in the co-operative to be reduced from 15 to 14, as they can now operate 12-hour on/off shifts and maintain their busy schedule.

Looking ahead, Mr Hayward can see the need for more expertise to interpret the data that is being produced, as well as a requirement for real-time information.

“I could make better decisions on grain marketing and crop harvesting if I received vital information without any time lag,” he points out.

He would also like to see predictive techniques based on aerial surveys, as well as the use of smaller machines to prevent damage to soil structure.

Case study 2: Technology aids environmental monitoring

Radio and satellite tracking techniques, nest sensors and radio frequency identification are being used for environmental monitoring within a farm setting.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” explains Alastair Leake, the head of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s (GWCT) Allerton Project in Leicestershire.

“Using these developments allows us to find out more about different species, their survival rates and their behaviour.”

The idea is that the results of these efforts can then be used to introduce targeted environmental measures, to ensure better results for wildlife, he adds.


  • “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” explains Alastair Leake, the head of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s (GWCT) Allerton Project in Leicestershire. Photo: Hugh Knutt

    “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” explains Alastair Leake, the head of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s (GWCT) Allerton Project in Leicestershire. Photo: Hugh Knutt

As such, radio tracking is used to monitor pheasants, as well as finding out more about their habitats. “There’s a positive correlation between wild pheasant numbers and songbird numbers, so their numbers matter.”

It also allows experts from the GWCT to study nesting ecology, giving a better understanding of mortality and the causes of death, whether from predation or disease, he explains.

“If pheasants are captured and tracked before they start nesting, their mortality rate is lower. Once they’re nesting on the ground, that rate goes up.”

Results show that early breeding birds choose nest locations in woodland and hedges, which are more protected, whereas the later breeders have to nest in farmland and must wait for spring crops to grow, making them more vulnerable, he reports.

Satellite tagging

In the same way, satellite tagging has been employed to measure resident and migratory populations of woodcock, finding out which habitats they use and when they visit them, while GPS tracking is used to understand the predation of songbirds by squirrels.

“By recording their visits to feeding stations within a wood, we know which squirrels are feeding and where they are active. The females will only use one feeder, the males go much further.”

Use of nest sensors

Nest sensors are helping to investigate why lapwing numbers are still in decline, despite the use of Higher Level Stewardship (HLS), as they indicate if the nest temperature has dropped – a sign that it has been predated.

“The adult survival rate of lapwings is 75%, but in the first year of a lapwing’s life it’s only 60%,” reveals Dr Leake.

“Each breeding pair has to fledge 0.7 young per year to maintain numbers, or the population will fall even further.”

Research has shown some 85% of lapwing clutch loss is due to predation, whereas 10% is due to flooding and 5% to trampling.


  • Satellite tagging has been employed to measure resident and migratory populations of woodcock, finding out which habitats they use and when they visit them. Photo: Shutterstock

    Satellite tagging has been employed to measure resident and migratory populations of woodcock, finding out which habitats they use and when they visit them. Photo: Shutterstock

“Taking that further, we have been able to discover that 46% of predation occurs in the day, by magpies and crows, whereas 50% is at night from foxes and badgers.”

The chicks are monitored with radio tags, to find out more about their behaviour. “Where they range widely, they are more vulnerable to predation.”

Cameras are used to monitor predators, while selective and humane snares are employed to hold foxes so they can be radio tracked.

“We need to know about fox numbers and behaviour for the survival of species such as curlew, golden plover and lapwing. In the same way, we have to keep track on mink numbers for the sake of water voles.”

Both were speaking at the recent IFM conference, organised by Leaf, aimed at assessing the current role of technology and predicting what it might have to offer in the future.

 

What is Linking Environment And Farming (Leaf)?

Leaf is the leading organisation promoting sustainable agriculture, food and farming.

It helps farmers produce good food, with care and to high environmental standards, which is sold in supermarkets with the Leaf marque logo.