Breakthrough technology and the supply chain
Agriculture is an industry that’s been subject to technological revolution. Set against a backdrop of feeding a world population of nine billion by 2050 and food producers now competing on a global stage, farming smart has become a necessity rather than an ambition.
Add to that the need for food production to have less impact on the environment and the scale of the challenge becomes evident.
It reaches far beyond buying bigger machinery and is more adventurous than downloading a few smartphone apps – solutions for ultra-efficient, sustainable farm businesses now need to seamlessly integrate into existing operations and break new ground.
Supply chain innovation
The implications for the agricultural supply chain of farmers demanding cutting-edge solutions are enormous and exciting.
Farmers rely on the established experts to research and develop a pipeline of products, designing concepts that challenge the status quo before rigorously testing and refining products through to completion.
Before any product is adopted on farm, manufacturers need to look years ahead and see where the possibilities for its application start and end. They will live and die by its potential while for farmers, the product could be the difference between profit or loss.
The evolution of robotics in agriculture
Robotics is one of the more established innovations that has positively impacted on farms and throughout the food supply chain.
Vegetable growers, fruit packers, egg producers and processors are just a few who have seen the benefit of automation improving efficiency and the beneficial impact that can have on both the quality of food sent to customers and the price of it.
But it is in the dairy sector where the most recent progress has been made in integrating robots at farm level.
The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers estimates that 5% of dairy farmers have switched to robotic milking parlours and that automated parlours constitute nearly one-third of all new milking systems being purchased.
Those sold on the technology are also exploring robotic feed pushers and feeders too in a bid reduce labour costs and spend more time focusing on cow welfare and performance.
Automation produces huge amounts of information which in turn creates a more analytical customer for the supply chain to talk to ¬– one that looks to suppliers to create marginal improvements in their products or advice leading to a measurable, meaningful benefit for the farm.
Robotics’ most significant value could yet to be unlocked as the supply chain deploys new technology to the arable and vegetable sectors.
Automated weeding machines, for example, are becoming available across the world but their potential is yet to be fully explored. Their ability to straddle rows of crops and mechanically remove any weeds could work in tandem with applications of crop protection products.
Adopting new technology
The success of such products, much like other high-tech developments, will depend on its cost when deployed at a variety of scales.
The recent, rapid adoption of precision farming equipment has led to equipment suppliers being able to offer a wider choice and a range of prices. It is no longer the preserve of large farms and contractors.
Research conducted by JT Research has shown that 87% of UK farms over 200ha and 56% of UK farms over 20ha+ use some kind of information management or precision farming tool.
Key to that change has been widespread use of satellites.
Satellites now play a huge part in the market with their ability to guide single vehicles or entire fleets of tractors, sprayers and combines around a farm on a single route, reducing soil compaction and fuel consumption.
Defra says GPS-equipped farm vehicles can save as much as 6-10% in inputs, fuel and time when applying sprays and fertilizer to a field. The percentage of farms using the technology rose from 14% in 2009 to 22% in 2012, according to the department.
Capturing imagery from space has also allowed annual mapping and analysis of crop rotations and changing cropping patterns. This has paved the way for better evaluation and tracking of arable pests and diseases, allowing farm advisers to develop tools that deliver early warning systems for farmers.
Building a picture of agriculture
More precise knowledge of crop areas and field locations has provided the supply chain with more data to create a targeted approach to product marketing. From a regulator perspective, government also has better evidence to inform their decision-making on policies that affect the direction of new product development.
The ability to only apply the necessary amount of crop protection products and fertilizers in a crop is hugely efficient and work is ongoing to create real-time scanning and applications in one single pass.
Farm work bound for the sky?
While unmanned aerial vehicles have been used in agriculture sporadically for more than five years, work is still got to be done to fully unlock their potential.
Drones use the latest in multi-spectral imaging to give an accurate picture of crop health, as well as identifying weeds and estimating biomass to a high level of accuracy.
This technology has been rolled out in the supply chain’s product development arena too. Quick, accurate monitoring of the state of a crop has advantages for manufacturers of crop protection products, seed breeders and fertilizer companies among others.
Agronomists use drones to produce recommendations for accurate and focused nitrogen and pesticide applications, and can predict yields.
Farmers have already become more precise in their applications, but manufacturers in Asia are hoping to replace the sprayer on some farms and have developed drones to carry out the work. Improvements to battery life and confirmation of its accuracy and improvement could lead to drones carrying out more farm work aerially.
Livestock sector not lagging behind
The arable sector is often where new farm technology is targeted, but livestock farmers are just as adaptable to change if they see a performance or financial benefit.
Across the world technology is being deployed to allow more accurate, efficient stock management in the beef, sheep, dairy, pig and poultry sectors.
Automated body condition scoring infrared cameras for cattle is now available, while heat detection collars and satellite-tracked movement tools have all been developed to improve farmer decision making and are as much a precision farming tool as a GPS-guided tractor.
Modern broiler units have been developed to allow maximum control of the shed’s environment while minimizing the amount of physical time a stockman has to spend walking the flock, disturbing the birds and increasing the biosecurity risk. It has allowed precise management of every aspect of the birds’ needs from a control room, tablet or smartphone.
Stockmen from all sectors are engaging world-leading breeding companies in order to adopt high quality replacement programmes focused on developing desirable genetic traits that will herds and flocks that are fit for the future.
With a strong academic base, an innovative supply chain, and progressive farmers, agriculture is well placed to deliver the innovation that will help food producers rise to the challenges they face in the future.