Farm business profitability and environmental sustainability will become increasingly critical as we move through the next decade of change and uncertainty, requiring resource and a new management approach.
The current agronomist and grower relationship will need to evolve if these challenges are to be met over the next 10 years, and utilising technology will be a significant part of this, says Stuart Hill, Hutchinsons head of technology & innovation.
The Hutchinsons Helix project aims to do just this and is the first of its kind in the UK. Helix is a research project looking at how technologies can be successfully linked with knowledge to deliver a greater level of advice by agronomists to farm businesses.
"Helix is an over-arching project, it's really about delivering our idea and vision of the agronomist and grower relationship in the future," Mr Hill says.
"We are on the cusp of a new era and it feels that we are ready to embrace it completely.
"We are being exposed to a plethora of technologies such as data analytics, climate, machine learning, sensors, monitoring, detection systems, autonomy and robotics. However, there is a need to evaluate which technologies are relevant and ultimately increase productivity and profitability, as well as efficiency, both for the grower and the agronomist. We need to be able to rationalise these technologies into a benefit for the grower."
Mr Hill adds that there is a new breed of agronomists who are able to “make sense of the technology and use it efficiently”
He adds: "There is a tendency to look at technology in isolation, but we need to be linking the knowledge you get as a result of the technology with the ability to deliver the advice as a benefit."
Focusing on key areas of innovation and technology, the Helix project will act as a central research hub, bringing together all aspects of crop production from field data to input measurement.
Surveillance and predictive software, nutrition, input and new trait technologies will also be assessed and developed in the Helix project. Managing the interactions of the variables and data that needs to be measured and understood will enable beneficial decision support to maximise efficiency, yield, quality and sustainability.
Hutchinsons says it's about aligning the new technologies with the old, alongside increasing knowledge that the agronomists will need to deliver much more strategic advice for sustainable farming.
"Work has already begun on the farm on areas such as climate and pest monitoring through a one-hub system approach using Hutchinsons own Omnia system and software," adds Mr Hill.
The National Helix Technology Development Farm is being hosted courtesy of Andrew and William Pitts, of JW Pitts & Sons, located at Moat Farm, Whiston, in Northamptonshire. So the trials have all been done on a farm scale.
"We are running over 1,700 acres here and our aim is to be productive, efficient and ultimately profitable, otherwise we have no farm," says Andrew Pitts. "The relationship with the agronomist in future will adapt to this and will, with the use of technologies, become more strategic and inclusive of whole farm advice.
"The technology revolution is here and we need to ensure these are relevant, applicable and straightforward to use for all our benefit. I see a future when we will spend much less time field walking with the technologies available and more time on strategic discussion about the farm and sustainability. There is an unbelievable amount of technology coming through.
"We are going to be pushed that way by the Government [in the new Agriculture Bill] and there will be all sorts of funds for re-equipping the farm."
Working alongside them are Hutchinsons agronomists James MacWilliam and Michael Shemilt.
Mr Shemilt is the “pilot” agronomist of the future, testing and managing technologies with the farm to understand how they will work and their value in the farm scale situation.
Work has started on areas such as climate and pest prediction, nutrition technology, variety trait work and environmental sustainability.
This work will not be done on small trial plots, but will be farm scale trials. As the trials progress, then they will be available for growers and agronomists to study.
"We will aim to demonstrate these technologies by various means and not just the traditional farm open days.
"After all, this is about use and benefit of technologies, so technology will be used to demonstrate it," says Mr Hill.
Introducing the Helix development project
Initially, the Helix project will focus on three key project areas that will align new and old technologies, evolving and developing these to improve crop management decisions. More projects will become apparent during 2019.
- Project, predict & justify – predicting and monitoring risk analysis with regards to disease, pests, crop growth and lodging risk. This will help growers to identify and understand where there is risk and to help justify farm decisions. For example, barley yellow dwarf virus risk forecasting: making this field-specific and for warnings to come before threshold levels are reached.
- Project sustainability – this encapsulates a sustainable farm business. This project looks at the sustainable use of inputs and sustainable farm environment. For example, Hutchinsons is developing technology to enable mapping of pollination species in appropriate locations and timings on farm.
- Project nutrition – soil and tissue testing are challenging and time-consuming processes. The nutrition project aims to simplify decision-making by enabling live analysis alongside developing knowledge.
Profits and tech top list of concerns
A recent grower survey identified the key concerns for farming businesses over the next 10 years.
Conducted by Hutchinsons agronomists, including Andrew Goodinson from Herefordshire, respondents identified that their main business challenges over the next 10 years would be profitability, agronomics, staffing and technology.
"It was certainly clear when talking to growers that they felt that they would need to develop a stable business not reliant on subsidies using existing resources, and to do this they would need to become more efficient through attention to detail, " says Mr Goodinson.
"They felt that future technologies such as satellite images, as well as the use of diagnostic tools would become increasingly common, and that variable rate applications would become the norm. This was alongside the need to harmonise different systems to have a paperless recording base.
"In order to do this, farmers would expect agronomists of the future to have wider access to information and solutions, become data interpreters, less field walkers and be ahead of the game in terms of skills and technology developments."