R&D sees agriculture hit the fast forward button

Article taken from Farm Business magazine
Technology is helping crop production develop apace, says Agrovista boss Glenn Aungles.
Agriculture is constantly changing as technology advances – it always has and always will. This has been a given in an industry that has consistently improved performance in yield and quality.
The boom times for yield enhancements came with the development and refinement of fertilisers and chemical inputs followed by genetic selection and breeding. In the 21st Century, agriculture is facing a very different situation with ‘traditional’ input technology coming under pressure from many different directions including:
• Environmental factors affecting fertiliser rates and applications;
• A levelling-off of new varieties bred by conventional means;
 
• A reduction in active ingredients in the chemical armoury resulting from the cost of defending older actives through a new review system and less investment in traditional chemical R&D.
 

The agricultural marketplace is probably beginning to experience its biggest change in crop production elements since the late 1960s. With the brakes still on GM technology in Europe, breeders have looked to introduce other breeding technologies to develop traits to suit the new markets open to them.

It’s no surprise that the companies that are investing heavily in this area are the very same companies that invested heavily in chemical R&D through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. This investment will secure their positions as global players in the ever-important market of food production – but what does it mean to the grassroots grower?
 
Companies like ourselves at Agrovista have to develop and invest in new ways of maintaining crop production value and yield for the grower. There is no ‘silver-bullet’ to solve disease issues, weed resistance and the reduction of actives. Instead we have to look at whole farm economics and bring in new technologies to help manage crops in far more detailed ways.
 
Technology is now developing faster than it ever has. Computing power has jumped forward significantly and with the advent of more reliable data networks the farm office has become virtual and mobile. Couple this with the advent of machines to capture data every moment they are switched on and we start to develop a whole new understanding of the crop and the land.
 
Every pass of a tractor in a field can now measure Green Area Index and calculate ground cover and the fertiliser required. This data can then be shared across a network, bringing a high level of science to bear on decision-making. The data capture is huge – combines, tractors, drills, sprayers, unmanned aerial vehicles and phones are all used to capture field data and information – but how can a grower use it?
 
This information comes in a variety of formats and levels; it looks pretty, but what does it mean and what decisions can be made from it?
 
Agrovista, under the banner of Plantsystems, already has disease prediction systems working in broad-acre crops in the UK. At the moment, these are mainly used on the high-value fruit and vegetable crops, but are perfectly capable of being used across arable crops as well.
This jigsaw puzzle of information is what we are looking to use to piece together the whole farm economics picture. Investment in research to ‘ground-truth’ UAV observations is high on our priority list, as is developing a way of formatting collected data from one machine to allow it to be accessed by a second machine.
 
The information exchange is now real and being launched for growers this spring as AXIS (Agrovista eXchange Information System), allowing the uploading of maps and information, and overlaying over farm maps. Farmers’ interpretation of this information, working in conjunction with their agronomists’ advice, can now begin to bear fruit in terms of practical solutions on farm to increase yield, manage weed populations or respond to a disease threat by picking the correct fungicide for the identified risk.
 
This intelligent technology is now available to growers. It’s very easy to gather masses of information about the land, crops and nutrition, but the interpretation of this information is the key that unlocks the real value. The understanding and interpretation of data is the next level we must achieve if the crop production industry is to start to lift the yield plateau.
 
I firmly believe that we’re now at the threshold of the next big revolution in agriculture, but interpretation, knowledge and understanding will be far more important than simply gathering raw data. After all, it has to add to the grower’s bottom line.
 

Glenn Aungles is managing director of Agrovista UK Ltd.

 

08 May 2014

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