Precision-growing technology uncovers benefits for crops

Precision-growing initiative run to train growers on how to use the latest technology in the field.

Precision agriculture makes companion planting more viable as well as allowing field growers to tailor nutrient application to observed conditions, according to Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC) chief executive Graham Ward.

Starting last year, the SATS4Crops initiative at the North Yorkshire research centre has been running primarily to train growers in precision-growing technology partnered by equipment suppliers Manterra and SBG Innovatie, supported by the Rural Development Programme for England.

"Companion planting is poorly understood but you could plant a legume such as clover between the crop to provide nitrogen then kill it off or put in barrier plants to restrict the spread of pests and diseases," said Ward. "You can do this because you control the implement so you know where each plant is."

But such precision can only be achieved by refining the satellite guidance locally, using both a field station and by placing a further antenna on the implement itself. "A tractor wobbles, so you need to be able to control the implement independently," Ward explained.

STC technologist Dr Chantel Davies added: "We are working with camera sensing for nutrient status - it opens up the opportunity to hone every activity to greater efficiency."

Ward predicted: "In three years' time we will be able to apply tailored nutrient doses into the soil at amounts varying every 2m. You couldn't do that by soil analysis - it would be too expensive."

Technology Opportunities not being seized

Farming technology is providing "amazing opportunities that we are not taking advantage of", Harper Adams University head of engineering Professor Simon Blackmore told the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month.

"We are good at innovation, but not good at turning innovations into commercial products," he said. "Companies talk about lack of demand - they aren't being asked for these products and systems. How long will it take for UK farmers to take advantage of these new opportunities?"

But he added that a method for knocking out weeds with low-power lasers is currently being commercialised, perhaps surprisingly, by a "major agrichemicals company".

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