As UK farmers face huge changes in their business environment, making precision all the more critical, Agri-EPI Centre is working with them to develop technologies that help to banish guess work from management decisions.
One of the four Centres for Agricultural Innovation established by Innovate UK through the UK government’s Agri-Tech Strategy, Agri-EPI has teamed up with 28 innovative farms, covering commodities including beef, dairy, sheep, arable, pigs, potatoes and root crops. The purpose of these ‘satellite’ farms is to allow new technologies and techniques to be developed and trialled in commercial farming environments.
One of the farms is Bielgrange in East Lothian, owned and run by Niall Jeffrey, AgriScot’s 2018 Scotch Beef Farmer of the Year. Niall has been at the forefront of trialling new Beef Monitor crates developed by Ritchie Agricultural in conjunction with Agri-EPI.
These are effectively modified handling crates with an integrated water trough, which cattle enter voluntarily to drink, indoors or outdoors. As they do so, the crates’ inbuilt sensors record the daily liveweight of each animal. With the correct analysis, this daily data can be hugely beneficial in helping a farmer make speedy decisions to reduce costs and ensure animals are delivered to the abbatoir in-spec.
The Beef Monitors have gone through several phases of development as a result of the on-farm trials and this will continue during 2019, with a view to increasing the type of data that can be collected. The important element, says Agri-EPI Centre’s Farms and Commercial Manager Gavin Dick, is that the beef monitor concept has been shown to work.
Gavin explained: “Farmers are having to adapt to huge changes in their business operating environment, meaning there is now a much greater need for live and detailed management information that allow them to better-informed decisions. The Beef Monitor has already proven to be an ideal vehicle for starting the process of gathering such information, potentially giving beef farmers key information significantly earlier than the best stockperson could identify using their eyes and experience.”
“Now we know the cattle will happily enter the crates voluntarily and stress-free to drink, and we have had really important feedback from Niall and the other farmers trialling the Beef Monitors, this is where Agri-EPI really comes into its own. We are now assessing which of the many available sensor technologies – such as boluses, collars, anklets and even breath analysers – could further enhance data collection and analysis. Such tech is already being used on robotic milkers in the dairy industry so it’s time to see the beef sector catch up.”
Dave Ross, Agri-EPI Centre Chief Executive said: “The satellite farms are a core element of our activities to bring productivity-boosting technology to UK farmers across all of the key farming sectors. Crucially, we work hard to create and enhance connections between the farming industry, science and commercial developers of new technologies. This is a critical time for UK farming and this multidisciplinary approach is the best means of identifying novel solutions.”
Ian Cox, Innovate UK’s Innovation Lead for the Agri-Tech Centres added: “In their short lifetime the four Agri-Tech Centres have engaged in a major capital build programme developing new high technology assets to drive forward the applied R&D capability in the UK to develop solutions to the real world problems that the farming community face.
“The Agri-EPI satellite farm network is a good example of this, providing a unique environment where new technology can be trialled on farms, and the benefits demonstrated to farmers. Apart from the build programme, the four Agri-Tech Centres have to date already engaged with over 35,000 UK farmers, secured 46 projects worth £14.2 million to the research consortia, and £3.1 million to the Centres, created 98 high tech jobs, involved 192 organisations and several high-profile Government initiatives. These include Rural 5G Broadband. The success of the Agri-Tech Centres is being noticed overseas and already attracting a lot of interest from countries as far afield as Paraguay, New Zealand and China.”