Agronomy is touchy-feely by nature. It involves walking through the crop, pushing back the canopy to see what’s going on in the bottom of the crop, inspecting the leaves, pulling up the odd plant to look at its roots and dissecting it to establish its growth stage.
For Hutchinsons’ agronomist Kieran Walsh, all of these tools were lost to him when he took on the agronomy for the Hands-Free Hectare (HFH) at Harper Adams University in Shrops. The project is the result of an idea born in a moment, he explains, made possible because the right people came together at the right time. Now in its second season and backed by AHDB funding, the HFH is attracting attention worldwide and stretching the boundaries of what’s possible without feet on the ground.
With much of the early work concentrating on the mechatronics that make the project possible, this season there’s been more time to focus on how to meet the needs of the crop without walking it.
“It’s been easier this year because we have the bits of kit that had to be designed as we went along last season. Although I can use rovers to scout the crop and soil sample, no robot can yet dissect a plant. So, when I needed to establish the growth stage of the crop, we commissioned the rover to dig up a plant and bring it out of the hectare and back to mission control for me to look at,” explains Kieran.
“When I wanted to take leaf samples for tissue and disease analysis, we had to design a claw that fits underneath the big drone so that it can fly in and grab a sample. We’re also able to use the claw to collect ears so we can test the moisture content of the grain before harvest.”
This year the hectare is planted in wheat and Kieran says it’s been much easier having the tools in-hand. He’s been able to focus more on getting to know the field and its soil, sending the drone out more often that in its first season.
“We’ve used live-streaming from the drone and I’ve been able to visually inspect the crop from my office in the Cotswolds. From this aerial view, it’s been possible to identify areas of the crop I’m not happy with and then the drone has gone to have a closer look, flying just above the crop so I can zoom in on the problem area,” he explains.
This season Kieran has also had information from a spore trap which he’s found invaluable. “It’s really given an extra edge because disease and pest levels are the two most difficult things to monitor effectively with a drone. With the spore trap data and information from a weather station, we’ve known when there have been peaks in Septoria infection and have been able to adjust rates and timings accordingly.
“Thanks to Bayer, we’ve also taken leaf tissues to be tested at Fera for latent Septoria infection and when the results come back we’ll be able to see if we made the right spray decisions, “he adds.
Will this new technology replace the agronomist? Kieran emphatically believes that won’t happen, but it will provide a useful management tool, freeing up time currently spent scouting and driving from field to field. He also believes that spore-trapping will enable growers to manage out-lying land more reliably, giving them more freedom to choose varieties with the greatest margin potential.