Ploughing still popular but government initiatives could accelerate adoption of reduced tillage

Reduced tillage methods for establishing crops may not be quite as prevalent as often portrayed in the farming media according to research carried out by the National Farm Research Unit (NFRU).

 

In a recent poll conducted in February 2022, as much as 45% of the cereals and oilseeds area for this harvest is likely to be established with ploughing putting it only a little behind reduced tillage and direct drilling (combined at 55%).

 

Based on 800 respondents, the numbers have been modelled up by NFRU to represent the UK picture.

Less surprising was the use of reduced tillage and direct drilling in the arable heartlands. By contrast, ploughing remained the dominant method in areas such as the north-west (81%) and Scotland (84%).

 

The growth in direct drilling is expected to rise over the next few years with increasing government incentives and the growing trend towards soil health reduced tillage.

 

Popular reasons for moving to direct drilling included the reduced cost of establishment, and savings on time, labour, tractor hours, equipment needed and soil health benefits.

Larger farms (220ha+) were more likely to have invested in reduced tillage and direct drilling thanks to the benefits of increased area covered, a greater need for efficiency as well as the ability to offset a higher direct drill cost against a larger number of hectares.

 

Farmer Attitudes

The continuing popularity of ploughing was put down to a number of key reasons including, suitability (41%), habit (16%), weed control (13%), soil health (13%) and the weather (10%).

By contrast, reduced tillage was preferred by farmers adopting this practice because of soil health benefits (25%), suitability (25%), cost (23%) and being quicker (8%).  At a time of soaring fuel prices, using less red diesel was cited by some on heavy land, along with using less wearing metal, as important factors for reduced tillage. Similarly, those adopting direct drilling cited cost as a key reason (21%) along with soil health benefits (35%).

 

Harvest 2022

Meanwhile, as farmers transition away from BPS payments to new incentives, the government recently closed application to its Farming Equipment and Technology Fund which offered grants of between £2,000 and £25,000 for equipment to aid farm efficiency through new methods, such as direct drilling.

 

The pre-determined list of 120 items that qualified for grants included a six-metre direct drill which may nudge farmers towards establishing crops this way.

The tapered reduction in BPS payments over the next few years will almost certainly encourage farmers to look at their on-farm efficiency. Future funding incentives focused on soil health may see more farmers breaking the behavioural ‘habit’ of ploughing and move towards reduced tillage or direct drilling.

Technology is always developing, and so are we…

We are excited to announce a new look for Rezare Systems, part of the Map of Ag Group, but first let’s take a look at our journey so far…

 

How we started

Rezare Systems was founded in 2004, with the founder directors having worked at AgResearch, NZ’s premier crown-owned agricultural research institute. Over the years Rezare Systems has developed an enviable track record in developing solutions that are best in class and derived from our expertise in building customer-centric software, leading development methodologies, and science-backed digital solutions for agriculture.

Map of Ag’s vision is to be the most trusted global data platform connecting farms and industry. Map of Ag was founded by New Zealand farmer Forbes Elworthy as a spin-out from his agri portfolio investment business to meet a growing need for data-driven insights into farm performance.

Incorporated in 2015, we have since acquired several businesses: Precision Prospecting in 2016, The Evidence Group and Precision Decisions both in 2018, and Rezare Systems in 2020. We are now 120 staff with across offices in the UK and New Zealand.

 

Where we’re heading

At the heart of our business is our data platform, Pure Farming, connecting farms and industry making sure data originators can control how their data is used and by whom.

Customers beyond the farmgate increasingly need access to farm and environmental data to achieve their business objectives. Farmers are increasingly asked to spend time supplying this data which they have already entered into systems for management purposes. Existing data is often hard to access, poor quality and difficult to organise. Map of Ag works as a trusted partner to connect farms and the supply chain allowing them control of their respective data.

As a company our values are ‘VITAL’

Value​: We will deliver demonstrable benefit to our customers, recognise everyone in the business has something to offer, and put something back into the industry and society.

Innovation​: We will be tireless in developing best-in-class solutions and processes that put us out front in the marketplace.

Trust​: In everything we do, we will act with honesty and integrity – our people, our solutions, and our relationships.

Agility​: We will be willing to adapt to evolving needs and considered in the changes we make.

Longevity​: We will keep looking over the horizon to future-proof what we do today for the needs of tomorrow, and​ continually learn from our​ experiences and peer.

 

Introducing the Rezare Systems new logo

To bring the brands within the Map of Ag Group together, we have updated the branding of Rezare Systems to show strength across the group and create a consistent style.

Julian Gairdner, Chief Commercial Officer at Map of Ag Group says: “Trust is essential for us. We strive to create a trusted brand identity and the alignment of the Rezare Systems brand with the Map of Ag Group, cements Rezare Systems as a core enterprise within the portfolio.”

The Rezare Systems logo has been adapted to a sphere style icon, encompassing the Map of Agriculture colour palette. The new logo conveys a more contemporary and dynamic feel, designed to reflect the leading technologies which Rezare Systems provides for its customers.

Andrew Cooke, Managing Director (NZ, Australia) and Chief Technology Officer Map of Ag Group, says: “Here at Rezare Systems we help agribusiness embrace digital and progress their technology journey. Our new branding not only better reflects us as a business but also demonstrates our journey with Map of Ag.”

 

Forty thousand UK and Irish farmers applied for grants in the recent funding rounds

Thousands of farmers have applied for government grant funding in respective schemes offered by UK and Republic of Ireland governments a latest poll has revealed.

 

Following the close of the recent funding rounds, the National Farm Research Unit (NFRU) the poll of 3,161 UK and Irish farmers indicated 39,433 had applied for grants once the results had been weighted-up against NFRU’s Farm Structures Model to provide a representation of the sector across the UK and Republic of Ireland (RoI).

Across the UK and RoI funding has been available to incentivise farmers to invest in areas such as precision technology, livestock systems or improving conservation, which will help improve resilience for farm businesses and support sustainability.

Breaking down the results by funding type, the poll showed that over 12,500 farmers in England had applied for the grants through the Farming Investment Fund. In Scotland more than 3,000 farmers applied for the grants through the Sustainable Agricultural Capital Grants Scheme and in Wales 2,200 farmers applied through the Farm Business Grant.

The highest number of applicants came from RoI where more than 17,000 farmers applied for the Capital Items grants in the recent rounds of funding.

 

Arable Sector

Nearly a quarter of Arable farmers in Great Britain (GB) applied for funding. With a range of items available through the scheme all chosen to help support sustainable farming methods, 11% of arable farmers were looking to invest in a direct drill, indicative of the move towards regenerative farming methods and promoting healthy soils.

 

Dairy Sector

More than 40% of larger herd dairy farmers (150+ head of milking cows) in GB applied for funding. Twenty-five percent intended to invest in slurry management which aligned to compliance with upcoming slurry regulations which will come into force as part of the government’s Clean Air Strategy.

More than half of GB dairy farmers intended to use the grant for improvements to livestock management on farm.

 

Beef & Sheep Sector

Nearly a quarter of suckler herd farmers in GB applied for funding and more than 25% of these are seeking to invest in infrastructure and farm upkeep.

Twenty-four percent of sheep farmers in GB applied for funding with the 30% applying where flocks size was greater than 500 breeding ewes. Eighteen hundred of these will be investing in farm upkeep or conservation measures.

 

Ends

* The National Farm Research Unit interviews more than 18,000 farmers in UK and Ireland on a rolling basis. All the data is weighted up from our sample to estimates for the whole population using our Farm Structures Model.

More than 22,000 UK farmers say collaboration is essential to reduce water pollution

In creating a pathway to a sustainable future, whether that be tackling pollution, sustainable sourcing or production, there is a running theme which ties these elements together: collaboration.

 

So when it comes to water pollution, where are the opportunities for water companies and farmers to work together for mutual gain – and how do farmers feel about collaboration?
The National Farm Research Unit (NFRU) asked farmers across the UK their opinion on collaboration and how they view the importance of water within their farm operations.

 

“Clean and plentiful water”

The government’s 25-year environmental plan has been set out to address environmental challenges. Within this is the Landscape Recovery Scheme which provides incentives for farmers to make positive changes. The first round of funding has recently closed which focused on restoring England’s streams and rivers.

Regulations have since come into force to support the provision for “clean and plentiful water” such as the restrictions on the use of Metaldehyde slug pellets, which were banned as of 1st April this year. UK farmers believe this will provide a competitive advantage to farmers abroad who can export into our markets while using crop protection materials which are banned here.

A report from UK Parliament stated that agriculture affects more than 60% of failing rivers, with sewage effluent affecting over half. It was noted this was a result of a poor understanding by farmers of existing regulation contributing to low compliance with policy interventions.

Going forward, government legislation proposes to move beyond the fragmentary policy of the past to a systems approach with the aim to deliver environmental improvements and mitigate the pressures faced by freshwater ecosystems. To achieve this, farmer engagement is key.

 

Farmer attitudes to collaboration

To make significant changes to improve the environment, farmers need to engage with the schemes available and be open to the idea of working collaboratively for a mutual gain.

Reduction of pollution and the most efficient use of water have been ranked as the most relevant factors to a farm business by the poll undertaken by NFRU. This highlighted that farmers are more likely to collaborate with water companies in these areas, with more than 22,000 stating that collaboration is essential to tackle pollution.

Water companies are encouraging farmers to join them in schemes specific to priority catchment areas to help mitigate the impact from pesticides and other run-off from agricultural land on water quality.

The number of farmers engaged in these schemes has reportedly significantly increased over the past year. In turn, farmers are compensated for the water quality in their sub-catchment area.

Not only can farmers benefit from a payment through the scheme, but also the change of practice in relation to chemical management, specifically nitrogen, will provide a more efficient and cost-effective use of materials.

 

 

Ends

* The National Farm Research Unit interviews more than 18,000 farmers in UK and Ireland on a rolling basis. All the data is weighted up from our sample to estimates for the whole population using our Farm Structures Model.

References:

https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/POST-PN-0661/POST-PN-0661.pdf

Trustable and permissioned data will be key to some of the National Food Strategy recommendations

The national plan for food, unveiled last year, has some sound recommendations, some of which will be heavily data dependent, as Julian Gairdner explains.

 

I’ve been reflecting on Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy report these past few weeks.

Henry presented his update to the finalised project at this year’s online Oxford Farming Conference in January. The report is wide ranging in its breath of coverage but also remarkable in its relative brevity and common-sense to refine complex issues into a series of coherent recommendations.

Among those 14 recommendations, it was Recommendation 11 (investing £1bn in innovation to create a better food system) and Recommendation 12 (create a national food system data programme) that particularly pricked my interest.

It was particularly pleasing to note the report placed significant value on the role of farmer-led innovation. It said: “The UK spends on agricultural research and development around as much as France and twice as much as New Zealand but has seen slower productivity growth than either of those countries, relative to agricultural turnover”.

That’s why, the report argues, the £280m Defra has already earmarked for innovation through its Agricultural Transition Plan must ensure that a “full spectrum of farmer-led approaches” is supported. This is a good thing. We know that much of the problem in the UK is the ineffective translation of scientific research to action on the ground. Farmers are key.

Allied to this was a recommendation to fund two “What Works” centres along the lines of others that already exist such as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

In the case of agriculture, the work done by the Food and Drink Sector Council’s Agricultural Productivity Working Group in conceptualising (and piloting) the Evidence for Farming Initiative (which itself took its lead from Design Thinking work we led on behalf of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) should form the basis to one of the centres. The EFI has demonstrated through its net zero pilot that it has the potential to translate the farmer-led R&D that Defra will be funding into quality-assured guidance for policy makers, farmers and their advisors.

Recommendation 12 is particularly interesting being as it is based around setting up a National Food System Data Programme. The purpose of this, the report says, is to collect and share data so that the businesses and other organisations involved in the food system can track progress and plan.

The overall tenet of this recommendation is, I believe, sound particularly as it seeks to bridge the gap between what goes on on the land with what happens beyond the farm gate. But it does raise some points for consideration too:

  1. It will be vital to ensure that the bridge is sound. The report describes beyond the farm gate as being “data on food production, distribution and retail, and the environmental and health impacts of that food”. To my mind, food production starts behind the farm gate and its environmental impact has every bit as much to do with what occurs on the farm as how it is then distributed. Scope three emissions are a good example of this and we are working closely with food retailers and processors on accessing, analysing and providing insights on permissioned farm data to help connect the environmental footprint of farm product with what happens further down the chain. In creating a “single programme” as the report suggests, it will be vital that there is a properly holistic vision for data flow upstream, within and downstream of the farm gate and not assume these things fall into neat unconnected silos.
  2. The report highlights a need for “setting baseline data definitions, standards and hierarchies”. This is necessary and welcome but I hope the government does not seek to reinvent the wheel here. It is true there remain significant gaps in this area, but we and others are already developing and working with internationally recognised standards around farm data and it will be vital this is leveraged and not ignored.
  3. The teams behind the programme should, the report says “broker agreements with third parties – such as retailers or unions – to fill these [data] gaps without breaching confidentiality”. This, necessarily, implies permissioned data – without it there will be no trust. We have been working tirelessly in the development of our Pure Farming data platform to put data originators (very often farmers) in control of who can access their data and under what terms and conditions it can be used.  Our scalable permissioning engine is something that could be leveraged towards this objective of the report and again I would encourage the government to look towards industry experience and successes and not build again what already works.
  4. The dynamic between the private the public sector will be vital in the pursuance of a National Food System Data Programme. While government has the power to convene and coordinate and impose legal obligations on data reporting (and sharing), it does not always have the best track record in IT/data projects in the agrifood space. In some cases, industry has cracked on despite government, not because of it.  The building of trust in the sharing and use of data is vital (trust is the number one focus in our business) and some precedents are starting to be set (including codes of practice for data sharing) that would add value to the programme if government wants to engage.
  5. The proposed budget of £3.5m a year over three years does not feel enough. Data programmes such as these are notoriously thorny and complicated and I do not see the full aims being achieved for this amount – and certainly not within the timeframe.

For our business, we feel well placed to support what is in recommendations 11 and 12. Fundamentally, those recommendations point to a strong need for findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable data on or about farming businesses that has attached to it the relevant permissions and authorisations for a defined use. In Pure Farming we have such a solution that is designed to ingest, standardise and cleanse, permission and deliver data for myriad use cases, providing farmers (and other data originators) with confidence that their data will be used appropriately.

We stand ready to help.

Improving high-tech innovation in agriculture

“Powering up innovation through trusted data”. It’s no coincidence this is the strapline to our data integration platform Pure Farming because it’s fundamentally what we believe at Map of Ag.

 

At a time when the pressure on land use is at an all-time high our belief is that among the many options that will be deployed in the pursuit of sustainable food production, the role of data is critical.

Back in 2009 the chief executive of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific Research Organisation Megan Clark said that in the next 50 years, the world would have to produce as much food as we have ever produced in human history. Mind boggling!

Now, I haven’t validated this claim, but it is plausible and a useful barometer for the scale of the challenge ahead at a time of worrying global insecurity, climate change and the very obvious conclusion that we cannot address this by bringing more land into production in the way we did in the middle of the last century before the green revolution.
Thus, one has to start to look at how we can square the circle of producing more from less, at better quality (for which read healthier) and with a focus on reversing climate change. Innovation is needed now more than perhaps ever in the history of humanity.

Why might data hold such an important key?
Technological progress has made data access and interoperability (in theory) a reality. But there remain many challenges around this. In the UK alone a combination of outdated tech, siloed data sources, lack of aligned standards, and a cultural scepticism about where and how farmers’ data can be used and by whom, is holding us back.

That’s why our focus as a business is in providing a world-leading data integration platform that addresses a number of these points. With Pure Farming we have put the farmer’s ability to be in charge of who can use their data, at the heart of the solution. Farmers (“data originators”) can receive requests for access to their data and only accede to those if they feel comfortable with and approve the Ts and Cs under which the party requesting the data (“data consumer”) wants to use their data.

Furthermore, by connecting “in” to the platform multiple sources of data on or about the farmer’s business (such as the farm software they use, or even a weather station), the farmer can use those same built-once data bridges (“data connectors”) to agree to data requests from multiple different parties at the touch of a button, with the data being made available to those data consumers as well organised and structured data themes through industry-standard APIs. And importantly we respect that it is not our data. It is the farmer’s.
Why is this potentially game changing for innovation?

To feed 10bn people in the coming years will require a reset to the model of how we grow, process, transport, store and sell food. At every stage of this process there are opportunities to do things better. But this needs a more collaborative approach to the use of data right from farm to fork.

We are already seeing this in action with work we are doing around sustainability. Some of our corporate customers are working in a highly proactive and inspiring way with their farmer suppliers to measure and mitigate the GHG footprint of farm product and in so doing providing farmers with data dashboards – and importantly insights that those dashboards reveal – that provide pathways for effective change. On occasion farmers have been stunned by the revelations in their data and it’s provided the impetus to do things differently.

Elsewhere, I’ve often discussed with people in the industry about whether the effective use of data in core farm operations or genetic breeding will have the most significant impact on sustainable food production in the next decade or so. But the reality is the two are not mutually exclusive. With increasing connectivity and integration of farm production data, scientists are starting to test new varieties for example in “real” situations at scale where they can combine genomics, farmer knowledge and environmental analysis in so-called decentralised 3D breeding programmes. This is particularly important where there is a need to enhance local adaptation in challenging farming environments.

Closer to home, I led some ‘design thinking’ for AHDB a couple of years ago to conceptualise what has subsequently become the Evidence for Farming Initiative and which may become a “What Works” centre as advocated by Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy. What was interesting about the concept was the acceptance of and need to match scientific discovery alongside farmer knowledge and experience, with data sharing and exchange being a vital component to release innovation.

While it’s easy to extoll the virtues of a data-driven approach one should not forget that this stuff isn’t usually easy. Too many farms are not measuring anything of consequence at all. And all too often we find that even if they are, the quality of the data is poor – rubbish in usually means rubbish out.

But even small amounts of data from only a few sources can make a difference and there is no doubt in my mind that we are heading in the right direction and the opportunities to open up inspirational innovation through on-farm measurement and the collection and sharing of data are just around the corner…if not already upon us.

Horizon 2022

As 2021 draws to a close and we find ourselves remaining in the grip of Covid-19, we thought we’d take a look ahead to 2022 with a focus on opportunities and some predictions for the agrifood sector.

 

It’s easy to feel dragged down by the unrelenting challenges that the pandemic has brought, but there have been many examples of agile adaption to the rapidly changing circumstances that have inspired me and command my complete respect. In truth, the global agrifood sector has, for the most part, been incredibly resilient and resourceful, though we must not ignore the significant difficulties specific sectors have had to deal with over the course of the last two years some of which are dramatically ongoing.

The pandemic has forced society as a whole to view life through a different lens and in time it is possible the havoc it has wrought may also prove to have been the spark that initiated significant positive change, for example in areas such as climate change, or indeed social welfare.

This first issue of Horizon focuses unashamedly on data in the agrifood sector and the articles we have commissioned demonstrate the breadth of opportunity that a data-driven focus could deliver for the challenges our industry faces. Our business at Map of Ag is all about data and creating opportunities throughout the agrifood supply chain to do things better.

In the past 12 months, our technology teams have made huge progress on delivering our new data integration platform as a service (iPaaS), Pure Farming, and we are hugely excited by the potential this cutting-edge solution can bring to the sector in 2022.

The international nature of our business (we are operating in the UK, NZ, and Australia) means we have access to some of the key market signals across a wide range of agrifood sector businesses, economies, and climates enabling us to build solutions that we believe are truly fit for purpose in a scalable way.

Our role is all about connecting data in a secure and trusted way to enable businesses inside and outside the farm gate to thrive and adapt to ever-changing demands, both environmental and social. Horizon is another way in which we aim to fulfill that connection promise.

The opportunity is huge in agrifood and we look forward to working with you to achieve your goals and ambitions in 2022.

 

What next for climate action in agriculture?

While COP 26 was always going to be about implementation, wranglings over finance and commitments, Map of Ag’s Hugh Martineau takes a look at the implications for farming.

 

Much was made of whether or not the deals struck at COP 26 would go far enough to limit global warming to less than two degrees Celsius (preferably one-and-a-half degrees) above pre-industrial levels.

But it was harder to cut through the noise and determine what some of the rhetoric could mean for the ag sector. Indeed, there weren’t too many specifics but some sense can be made by focusing on the two key greenhouse gasses in agriculture.
Nitrous oxide emissions are created from the application of organic and inorganic fertilisers and the resulting nitrification and denitrification in soils – an essential biological process in growing plants.
According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), “at COP26, governments recognised that soil and nutrient management practices and the optimal use of nutrients lie at the core of climate-resilient, sustainable food production systems and can contribute to global food security”.

It is encouraging to see this focus on nutrients and in particular the use of reactive nitrogen. The movement focusing on #nitrogen4netzero has been gaining traction, not only due to the impact on GHG emissions but also the co-benefits for water and air quality and reducing the impacts of nitrogen deposition on biodiversity.

Map of Ag has focused heavily on nitrogen use efficiency in the past two years with pioneering work with Kellogg’s Origins growers in the UK. The work has provided evidence of the opportunities to reduce environmental impacts and improving margins in the process.

Methane emissions continue to be a focus due to its potency as a GHG (~85 times CO2 over a 20-year time frame) and due to its short-lived status in the atmosphere (average 11.8 years). This short-lived nature means it does not have the same cumulative effect as carbon dioxide so while some argue that it is less of a priority, policy makers now view this as an opportunity to accelerate action on global temperature rises.

This is reflected in the Global Methane Pledge agreed at COP26 which aims to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. While this pledge is centred on waste, oil and gas industries, the scrutiny of ruminant livestock methane emissions will continue. There are already calls for the pledge to include agriculture which accounts for ~50% of global methane emissions.

Although there is an awareness in certain quarters that livestock are an essential part of our agricultural production system, as an industry we need to provide a better narrative to support this and demonstrate this through data-driven evidence.
For example, emissions from cropland which amount to 11m tonnes of CO2 and measured in a separate inventory to agriculture (Land use, Land use Change and Forestry), are being partially offset by approximately 8m tonnes of removals by grassland.
So how do we create the positive narrative?

  1. By generating an evidence base that helps us relay the story
  2. Accepting the challenge and acting on opportunities for emissions reductions
  3. Demonstrating how to generate carbon dioxide removals
  4. Enhancing biodiversity gain in our agricultural systems

Data led approach 
There are still many gains to be made in improving production efficiency to meet targets and improve emissions intensity (CO2e/Kg product). Efficiency should not be confused with intensification as efficiencies can be found in all production systems. These efficiencies must focus on the key resources we use on farm – land, livestock, feed and fertiliser. We need integrated data management systems to inform management decisions which apply to every farming system.
The other side of the net zero balance is creating removals of carbon dioxide. Creating a baseline of carbon stock in soil and above ground woody biomass (trees, hedges etc) is essential and the data that feeds this must be accurate and gathered in an appropriate way.

Improvements will be driven by improving the methods for data collection, organisation, and use. Specifically, to GHG emissions, the approaches we are adopting for collecting data reduce administrative burdens on farmers by minimising duplication in accessing data, but the most valuable benefit that I have found has been in improving the accuracy of the data collected, which has considerably improved the level of analysis, insights and recommendations that are made as a result.

GHG tools 
There are continuing discussions around which tool should be used. This is understandable as farmers are looking for appropriate means to measure the baseline. But really, this is a moot point. Map of Ag is agnostic about tools as long as they meet standards for scientific rigour and transparency. We are working with partners to streamline data collection to inform third-party models.

Emissions calculations and models are continuously being updated as scientific evidence evolves. We need to make sure we have the right data to inform these models, as well as ensuring that data is owned and held by farmers so they can adapt and not be beholden to a single tool provider.

The most important element of GHG measurement is the data that feeds the models. This is the area where most models presently fail – their ability to process high resolution activity data means that accuracy or results is diluted along with the useful insights that can be generated – resulting in generic recommendations for GHG emissions reductions.

We have been working on data collection to improve GHG emissions calculation and are finding that we can get far more value from the assessments than simply a GHG emissions figure.

We are generating Key Performance Indicators from automated data sources that can help identify efficiency gains that can be achieved on farm. This has both a GHG benefit and a positive impact on profitability through resource efficiency.

This is an area that will continue to evolve but as farmers, we need to ensure we maintain control and ownership of our data and hold it in a form that can inform the most relevant and up-to-date models.

Tech Outlook – Where to from here?

Map of Ag Chief Technical Officer Andrew Cooke looks into the coming technologies influencing agriculture.

 

The turn of the year is often a time when we consider what has happened and what might take place. It can even be a good time to look a bit further out and consider how the budding technology trends of today might influence our future livelihoods. 

The Gartner hype cycle graph demonstrates this. Starting from zero there can be a huge spike of hype about a new technology, but it is difficult to see what real-life adoption might be like on the other side of the hype. In fact, the Gartner hype cycle is just that – a “spike” of hype and then disillusionment, superimposed on a traditional cumulative technology adoption curve. The challenge in reading technology trends is to understand which may be pure hype, which have potential long-term application, and what the underlying adoption curve might be.

While the spike of inflated expectations may make it hard to assess which technologies will be adopted, it can also serve to bring forward adoption that might otherwise take years. Expectations drive investment, and investment can speed technology development beyond the purely incremental.
So, what rising technology trends might impact agriculture in the coming years? Three trends encapsulate several different technologies and their common opportunities and challenges.

  1. Augmented intelligence
  2. Connected sensing and automation
  3. Trust architecture

Augmented intelligence 
The typical phrase that is used is “artificial intelligence” (the type of “AI” that doesn’t involve insemination!). But it’s important to look a bit wider than just artificial intelligence and consider a set of related technology trends that revolve around “augmenting” or assisting our understanding and decision making.

Trends in this space include:
Pattern recognition technologies 
These are tools and systems that train machines to recognise patterns in data. Depending on the types of data involved, this can include computer vision (various types of image processing), and natural language recognition and semantic analysis (understanding what people say). It can include the use of “deep learning” (training computers to recognise patterns, and then reusing that learning) and “machine learning” (automatically finding mathematical relationships between data). These technologies are often collectively called artificial intelligence.
A key use of pattern recognition is to collect data without human effort. Examples include monitoring milk to anticipate somatic cell count or using satellite images to monitor crop growth stages and disease or nutrient problems. Companies are using these technologies now, but the coming years will bring scale, reduced costs, and the ability to “connect things up” and use this “recognised” data for multiple purposes.

Digital twins 
Digital Twins are systems that take real-world data about farms, crops, and livestock, and place that data into mathematical models that help us with visualisation or prediction. The models themselves may include relationships discovered through machine learning analysis or more traditional scientific trials and human-developed algorithms – or even combinations of both.
Digital twins can provide early warning of infection or stress in livestock and crops. They can help us to visualise the nitrate or methane emissions of farm systems and undertake “what if” style analyses of different options.
Digital twins and connected data allow for predictive models and smart visualisations to be updated more frequently and analysed at greater scale than was previously possible.

Mobile applications and faster networks with improved coverage will allow us to access insights from augmented intelligence “as we need them” – either in real-time as decisions need to be made, or in the right context for our work. Experiments with virtual reality, augmented reality, speech recognition and related tools may also provide new ways to see, hear and interact with the outputs of augmented intelligence.

Connected Sensing and Automation 

One source of the data that will drive future decision technologies is the spread of affordable and connected sensors.
The “Internet of Things” (IoT) is the term used to describe a network of connected sensors and actuators used to gather data and control systems. IoT devices make use of a variety of modern networking technologies (short and long range) to deliver information to the cloud, and sometimes to take instructions from centralised servers.

Newer battery technologies, and at times use of solar energy, enable network connectivity and more frequent measurements than would have previously been possible. Modern IoT devices may receive updates to their embedded software over the network, allowing problems to be corrected and functionality to be improved.

Importantly, IoT devices are often (though not always) more affordable than previous generations of sensing and automation devices, and therefore can be deployed in greater quantities, giving a corresponding increase in granularity or scale of monitoring.

IoT and other connected devices and sensors are increasingly changing how we measure and manage in farming and environment systems. For instance:

Automating data collection tasks that farmers would have previously had to undertake manually (if they were undertaken at all). Examples include recording the activities involved with milking animals, including quantity and characteristics of milk. Lightweight sensor devices on animals collecting animal wellbeing, movement, and feeding information much more frequently than livestock keepers could otherwise hope to observe in their animals. Movement and temperature sensor data – when combined with the augmented intelligence already discussed – can predict heats, infections, even stress and boredom. We have long been able to download yield information from combine harvesters, although the task of walking with a USB stick has sometimes stopped that data being used. An internet connected harvester, however, becomes a very large IoT device, collecting yield data and quality assessments in real-time. As the data can be collected without human intervention, it is more likely to be leveraged with soil, satellite, and hydrology data to support future intelligent decisions.

Catchment-scale monitoring of rivers for nutrient flows once occurred with monthly data collection visits from sensors. New floating IoT sensors will collect river metrics in real time. The increased time-series granularity will allow us to understand whether we are seeing real improvements or declines in water quality, or merely the response to local rainfall events. In combination with farm activity data and intelligent models, farmers may even gain insights into the practical activities they can undertake to improve ecosystem health.

Connected sensors may soon support the logical next step in automation: responsive environments. Sensors, data networks, and digital twins combine to support machine-driven controls that operate within constraints that farmers define.

This is the agricultural equivalent of a car that uses radar to keep its distance from the car in front, or your phone which adjusts its screen brightness in response to the ambient light. We’re starting to see early examples of creating responsive environments in agriculture such as:

Targeted application of nitrogen to crops based on their growth stage, farmer decisions, and real-time measurement with N sensors
Irrigation systems that apply dairy shed effluent to fields taking into account soil moisture sensors, effluent pond levels, and forecast rainfall
Greenhouse control systems that automatically adjust air flow, temperature, and irrigation based on plant growth stage, sensors, and rules the grower has set, rather than purely based on a pre-programmed recipe.

Trust Architecture 
A common thread to these technology trends is substantially greater collection and use of data. Much of the processing will be carried out by sophisticated computer software operating in the cloud.

For many farmers, this could sound like an Orwellian nightmare: their farm and activities under continuous observation, remote decision making, and the threat of a remote “big brother” making judgements.

It’s fair to ask whether the benefits that technology promises are worth the loss of privacy and control.

Farmers, their suppliers, and their downstream customers will not gain the full benefits of augmented intelligence, connected sensing and automation, and other technology trends unless the questions of trust, control, and security can be satisfied.

Fortunately, in the same way that technology is bringing us new solutions for collecting and interpreting data, progress is being made in the components needed to support digital trust across the industry.

One of the key needs is a coordinated model for data permissions. Those who create data in their business (or more precisely, about whose business the data is collected) need to control how that data is used.

This is not just a case of restricting access. Indeed, it may be one of extending access – being able to give appropriate data access to staff and co-workers, or to vets and agronomists. Farmers and growers may want to provide subsets of data to supply chain partners, input suppliers, or software tools of their choice. They may need to control the types of data accessed, agree the purpose of access, and even change their mind and remove access.

Frameworks in this space are still evolving and it’s an area that is full of acronyms. The most widely used framework is a specification called OAUTH 2.0 (Open Authentication). This provides a secure way of granting data access to software systems but doesn’t facilitate agreements between people or organisations. An in-development extension to OAUTH 2.0, UMA or User-Managed Authentication provides a centralised way to control data from multiple sources but is also focused on software access only.

Distributed ledgers may offer some long-term solutions in this space. Distributed ledger technology is the cryptographic engine that underpins blockchain and crypto currencies, but you can use distributed ledgers without speculating on digital coins. This technology might allow digital signing of structured data access agreements – in a way that the signatures can’t be lost or fraudulently generated, and all changes and approvals recorded over time.

Data access agreements in this form could be used hand-in-glove with digital identity (a trustworthy way of linking an online identity to the real person or company that controls it) that is still under development.

While the underpinning technologies are still evolving, trusted industry data hubs and controls are starting to provide farmers with the control and delegation they need. Our Pure Farming platform is among them. It allows farmers to define data access permissions at a variety of scales, to other software systems, organisations, and individuals.

There is much still to be done around trust and security of farm data. Initiatives such as the NZ and UK Farm Data Codes of Practice, or the USA Farm Bureau Federation’s privacy and security principles help to establish the mandate for farmer and grower control of their data and to provide the principles that will underpin future data access agreements.

Farmers set to tighten belt on feed, fert and machinery

Almost a quarter of farms in the UK look set to cut expenditure on fertiliser and feed as a result of the tapering off of the Basic Payment Scheme.

 

In a poll of 1,107 farms in the UK during October 2021 by the National Farm Research Unit, 19% of farmers also expected to make cuts in spending on replacement machinery.

The findings which have been weighted by the NFRU’s Farm Structures Model, also suggested almost two thirds didn’t know what they will do to fine tune business costs as a result of the reduction in support payment.

With the phasing out of BPS many farmers are questioning how they can balance income, either from diversifying revenue streams or reducing costs in their existing farming systems. “We know the strategic importance of food security to a country and that whilst many farmers responding to this survey are not sure what steps they will take, food will still be needed in the UK which will require the agri-supply trade to provide the inputs UK farming will need,” Robert Sheasby, Chief Executive, AIC said. “The policy framework will be essential, something we are lobbying Government on, and AIC members in their advisory roles are already supporting farming businesses as we adapt to the new policy framework.”

The effect on farm input industry is likely to be magnified by a potentially reduced number of farms arising from the option for farmers to leave the industry with a lump-sum payment.

Sector focus
The reduction of BPS combined with soaring fertiliser prices suggested 35% of (almost 19,000) arable farmers will cut back on fertiliser spending. A quarter will trim machinery spending and as many as six thousand are looking to cut back on agronomy services. Nearly 11,500 expected to reduce expenditure on crop protection products.

More than one third of dairy farms indicated a preference for cutting back on bought-in animal feed with nearly a third training their sights on the fertiliser bill. Farmers may aim to replace purchased-in feed with home-grown forages. Meanwhile a quarter said they could reduce machinery expenditure.

Fertiliser, feed and machinery costs were the top targets for around a quarter of sheep and beef farmers, representing around 11,000 and 10,000 farms respectively.

Across all sectors, spending on professional advice on services such as the vet, agronomist or nutritionist looks set to be pared back by between five and eight percent of farms – six thousand to 11,000 businesses.

“The importance of planning, setting long-term on-farm goals, and ensuring the buy-in of all decision makers to a farming business as well as policy makers is central to the success of the agricultural transition over the next decade,” Mr Sheasby added. “The link between all professional advisers in industry and through the public sector is key to joining up ambitions and delivery, ensuring the UK develops a dynamic, sustainable and competitive farming sector.”

 

* The National Farm Research Unit interviews more than 18,000 farmers in UK and Ireland on a rolling basis. All the data is weighted up from our sample to estimates for the whole population using our Farm Structures Model.

Half of farmers don’t know how to measure carbon

More than half of UK farmers claim not to know enough about how to measure carbon on the farm and three-quarters don’t know who to trust to help them do it.

 

Those are the key findings of a poll of 911 UK and Rep of Ireland farmers during November 2021 by The National Farm Research Unit.

In the run-up to COP26 there has been an increased amount of scrutiny placed on the agricultural industry, and carbon has taken centre stage when it comes to creating more sustainable food production. With targets for net zero set, the pressure is on for farms to start measuring and mitigating emissions. But this raises serious questions about how this will be done and who will pay for it.

The research suggests 10% of farms are already measuring carbon and a further 25% are looking into it. In sectors where there are more aligned contracts with retailers, for example dairy, there is already more engagement with 22% of farms already doing it and 31% making enquiries. Similarly, larger scale arable farmers (200+ ha) are also more likely to be engaged, where 26% of farmers polled were already measuring and a further 12% were looking into it.

The findings have been calculated using the research unit’s Farm Structures Model* based on 911 interviews with farmers across the UK and Republic of Ireland in November 2021.

 

Getting it done

With almost three-quarters of farms not knowing who to trust to help them measure their carbon, there appear to be few emerging leaders to provide that expertise. Of the quarter who expressed a view as to where they may seek help in measuring carbon, seven percent said they would only trust themselves or the family with the remainder citing a plethora of third parties ranging from independent consultants and agronomists to academic institutions, retailers, buyers and NGOs.

“The research shows that farmers need help with measuring carbon,” Map of Ag Chief Commercial Officer Julian Gairdner said. “That’s why at Map of Ag we are evaluating a range of carbon models and are keen to help farmers and agrifood businesses understand how the tools can work for them. Our independence means we can support the sector with gathering the right data in the right tools, remove the need for duplicate data entry, keep the compliance load as light as possible and provide effective analysis to support positive interventions throughout the agrifood chain.”

Farmers were split over who should pay for carrying out the measurement. The weighted poll suggested more than six thousand farms expected the government to pay while over five thousand expected to put their hands in their own pockets.

* The National Farm Research Unit interviews more than 18,000 farmers in UK and Ireland on a rolling basis. All the data is weighted up from our sample to estimates for the whole population using our Farm Structures Model.

TotalDairy 2022 Round-Up

The 2021 Total Dairy Seminar, held this month in Stratford-upon Avon, brought over 300 farmers, veterinarians and supply trade delegates together for the first time in over two years for a packed programme of lectures and workshops.

 

Appropriately, with Glasgow’s COP-26 underway at the same time, the seminar examined priorities for dairy business resilience in the face of climate change adaptations, among other subjects. An overall theme from the presentations was that incremental gains in animal health and production efficiency can be good both for profitability and the environment.

Head of sustainability at Map of Ag, Hugh Martineau, advised that that the global scientific consensus is that the world is heading for an unsustainable 4⁰C rise in temperatures without preventative actions – hence the COP-26 aim to restrict the rise to 1.5⁰C by 2050.

In fact, global emissions are reducing against their 1990 baseline, he said. But agriculture’s 10% contribution to the world’s emissions is static, as its natural biological processes make further reductions harder. However, there is potential for the sector to sequester emissions from other sectors of the economy.

As far as ruminant livestock is concerned, the goal is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases – although we need to improve our systems of accurately measuring the on-farm carbon emissions per unit of milk or beef. At the same time, suppliers of embedded emissions through inputs such as fertilisers and feed should make this data available to farmers. Mr Martineau predicted that digital agriculture software platforms will increasingly play a part in connecting all stages of the supply chain to collect this information, for example incorporating data sources such as BCMS, farm nutrient supplies, milk recording and cull cow/beef processing data.

Map of Ag veterinary consultant James Husband explained that 48% of dairy and beef emissions are from enteric fermentation; 11% from feed; 7% from inorganic nitrogen fertiliser and 4% from land use change through imported feed materials.

Mr Husband said it is difficult to measure accurately the effect of changes to diets and feeding systems on GHG emissions from a farm. But there is a clear correlation between lower herd GHG emissions and profitability. For example, carrying fewer empty or sick cows increases the average milk yield of the herd while reducing emissions per cow. A 30-month first calving average produces 3.8% more GHG than a 24-month average.

Similarly, better forage quality reduces both the need for additional concentrate feed and the GHG emissions – grass silage has a cost of some 120 co2 equivalent/kgDM, while concentrates have a score of 1000 co2eq/kgDM.

There is between 10-15% difference in emissions between good and excellent forage quality – so attention to detail when making forage is essential for carbon efficiency, Mr Husband continued. Maize silage carries less embedded carbon than that from grass since the crop uses less fertiliser – but it may need more protein supplementation at feeding, which adds carbon cost.

In summary, better forage quality is the best way to improve dairy carbon efficiency, followed by reducing herd mastitis levels, age at first calving and the herd calving interval, he stated.

Looking ahead, Mr Husband predicted farmers will be incentivised to capture carbon – and potentially trade in carbon offsets – while COP-26 has shown that methane reduction will become important in future climate change mitigation.

With better dairy herd data on feed, health and nutrients, more targeted interventions will be possible, while genetic advances will also help cattle becoming more efficient, he concluded.

Professor Phil Garnsworthy of Nottingham University spoke on whole farm feed efficiency and methane reduction. He agreed that better grass and forage quality increases carbon efficiency, as does a lower heifer replacement rate – currently only 39% of calves born ever calve themselves – and earlier first calvings. More productive cows emit less methane.

Managers should take care to reduce feed wastage, as poorly maintained feeding systems and equipment can be very wasteful, while ad lib feeding can see 10-15% wasted feed – all of which adds to emissions totals.

Should temperatures continue to rise, heat stress in dairy cows will become more of a problem in the UK, advised Dr Tom Chamberlain, but much of the data available comes from hotter regions such as the US. Cows find it hard to lose heat – they don’t sweat. Higher temperatures result in more panting and less rumination, which can both cause metabolic acidosis, with a longer-term drop in signs of oestrus, conception rates and calf birth weights. Grazed animals are at more risk of heat stress than housed cattle.

Where heat stress is likely, herd managers should ensure ample water and provide shade where possible, reduce fibre in the diet to reduce metabolic heat output; use sodium bicarbonate buffers and probiotics to support the rumen; feed cows in the cooler parts of the day, and consider investing in fans and water misting systems for housing.

Professor Limin Kung of the University of Delaware gave a masterclass in silage making. While most farmers appreciate the importance of excluding air during fermentation and minimising the exposed clamp face during feeding-out, there is still a gap in actual practice. Prof Kung said 8-10% nutrient losses are inevitable even from good systems but can rise to 40% in poorly managed ones. And just 10% spoiled silage in a TMR ration could destabilise the quality of the whole feed.

He detailed the whole silage making process from mowing – wider swaths dry faster; through clamping – 6mm sheets are better than 4mm and two layers better than one; to feeding practices to reduce losses. And new technologies can help, including mobile dry matter testing devices; the ‘silage snap app’ to estimate the effectiveness of crop chopping from a mobile phone; and oxygen barrier sheeting to cover clamps.

However good the silage, Canada’s Daniel Scothorn of Scothorn Nutrition, stressed the need for attention to detail in helping cows maximise their dry matter intake (DMI) to ensure milk yield, quality and profitability.

Such practical measures include all cows always having access to sufficient fresh feed and clean water through regular feeding and feed push-ups; with at least 10cms water bowl space per cow and a daily cleaning habit. Ideally, DMI should be a Key Performance Indicator for herd managers and staff, he advised.

Dr James Breen, veterinary consultant at Map of Ag and Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham delivered two sessions on the control of mastitis in dairy herds

The first session outlined the national “QuarterPRO” scheme designed to easily and rapidly assess the predominant herd infection pattern by using individual cow somatic cell count data and clinical mastitis events and an automated “Pattern Analysis Tool”. This pattern tool software is freely available as a download from AHDB Dairy (https://ahdb.org.uk/quarterpro) and allows producers, veterinary advisors and consultants to ensure any advice given to control new infections is based on the herd PATTERN, with RESOURCES to provide information and that this is ONGOING every three months, hence the name of the scheme “QuarterPRO”. The QuarterPRO scheme is designed to be used for routine monitoring and guidance, with the Mastitis Control Plan remaining available for trained deliverers if more detail is required.

 

Having talked about preventing the first clinical case of mastitis in a cow’s lactation (always the most important element of mastitis control), Dr Breen then delivered a session on optimizing the outcome of treatment for any first clinical cases of mastitis that do arise, in conjunction with Kath Aplin from Boehringer Ingelheim.

 

Dr Breen echoed comments made by Prof Andrew Bradley (QMMS Ltd and University of Nottingham) about the importance of antibiotic treatment for the FIRST case of clinical mastitis detected in a cow’s lactation to improve chance of cure. Producers and their veterinary advisors should ensure that ALL clinical cases of mastitis are reported such that cure rate can then be measured using non-recurrence of clinical signs AND individual cow somatic cell count data, for example are the next three cell counts below 200,000 cells/ml following a clinical mastitis event? Factors that are likely to improve the outcome for FIRST cases in a herd will be speed of detection, prompt treatment, duration of treatment in higher cell count herds and the importance of cleaning the teat end with alcohol wipes before inserting the intramammary tubes.

 

Prof Andrew Bradley discussed the outcomes of very new research looking at predicting the chance of cure for a cow with clinical mastitis and stressed the importance of looking at cow information rather than relying on the results of bacteriology, as even strains of pathogens such as E. coli are able to persist within the udder and cause recurrences of clinical mastitis. Cows that are more likely to cure – and therefore who should receive antibiotic tubes – are younger cows, cows that do not have a history of high cell counts and cows that have not had clinical mastitis in the current lactation, as well as other factors such as time of year and number of quarters affected.

Updates made to Map of Ag’s FarmMetrics solution

As part of its continuous investment into its suite of technology solutions, Map of Ag is currently working to further enhance the capabilities of its FarmMetrics software.  

 

Developed over the past 10 years, FarmMetrics is an online web portal that allows organisations working with farms to access reports, insights, and gather further information from farms where required. FarmMetrics compliments the Pure Farming data platform, with data ingested from existing data sources permissioned for use within the software. FarmMetrics is currently used by a wide range of organisations, including food retailers, food processors, farm consultancy organisations and public industry bodies, covering a range of agricultural sectors.  

The development roadmap for FarmMetrics includes many new features and tools, along with enhancements to existing capabilities ensuring it continues to meet the needs of clients and their suppling farms. The below table provides a summary of some of these  new features. 

Feature  What will it offer? 
Cross Device Support  Improved cross device functionality, ensuring FarmMetrics can be accessed via a range of user devices, including smart phones and tablets. 
Client Administration  Allow users the ability to manage configuration of the software, data capture specifications & report content independently, giving them full control.  
International Support  Updating the interface to support multiple languages and local data preferences, allowing international businesses to more easily use it.  
Sustainability Insights  Use a range of new environmental sustainability models to provide insights on areas such as greenhouse gas emissions or nitrogen use efficiency.  

The new features will be rolled out in stages starting in early 2022. Richard Myers, FarmMetrics Product Manager, explains

FarmMetrics has delivered a huge amount of value to our clients to date, and has seen a high growth in the numbers of users, particularly in the past 5 years as agriculture becomes more digital. It’s therefore important that we continue to enhance core features, to support our clients in meeting their commercial needs, whilst also ensuring the data sharing process is as seamless and transparent as possible for the farm users who use it.

For more information on FarmMetrics, please email info@mapof.ag

VelTrak lifts sector’s traceability

The supply chain for deer velvet as an ingredient for medicinal and food products is a complex one from farm to final processing.

 

Deer Industry New Zealand recognised a need to bring greater transparency and trust to this supply chain to satisfy New Zealand’s food regulations. It also wanted to meet the expectations of multinational health and consumer goods marketing companies. 

The organisation recognised that having a tracing system for individually harvested velvet that extended along the full length of the supply chain would help build trust in the market. A digital solution was required to prove the supply chain’s validity and transparency, from the farm based velveting facilities, to final processing point.  

Deer Industry New Zealand CEO Innes Moffat says developing a tracking system for the deer industry was a big undertaking for a relatively small industry body, but one that was important to enhance the reputation of this valuable  product.

“The unique aspects of velveting, with its on farm collection, the need for veterinary supervision, and collection by velvet buyers meant there are multiple parties involved, and multiple compliance issues that need to be addressed and included in any tracking and validation system.” 

For that reason, Deer Industry NZ approached Rezare, and welcomed the company’s proposal to develop a bespoke system, now known as VelTrak. 

“Rezare understood the challenges and complexities and did not try to simply sell us an ‘off-the-shelf’ solution to that.”

“Our aim was to have a system that was as seamless as possible, tying all aspects and all parties together under it.” 
 

Innes says a key requirement of VelTrak was to move all parties off  a paper- based recording systems into a single digital recording platform.  

Veterinarians are now able to search the farm’s regulated control scheme (RCS) status prior to supplying velvet RFID tags, with a “red flag” ensuring non-compliant farmers will not be supplied.  

Tags for attachment to harvested velvet are able to be recorded by VelTrak when scanned out to clients, removing the need for vets to have to transcribe tag numbers into their own logs of tags allocated to farmer clients.  

“Vets can easily look up their stock of tags, and order more online, while the system ensures more efficient monitoring of tag stocks and allocation by clinic.”

“And for farmers, they will find the paperwork is removed for them, and they don’t need to scan the tags.”

“All farmers have to do is just keep tagging their whole-stick velvet and confirm an electronic velvet status declaration (VSD) when notified it is ready. Copies of paper VSDs are no longer needed, and all are stored digitally and are searchable.”

“Rezare have worked with us on a system that has many different combinations of farms, premises, ownership status with veterinary professional involvement adding another layer of complexity.” 

Wade Parker, Rezare’s project development lead on  VelTrak says the previous recording system  worked but was manual and paper based, which did not give the transparency and auditability that is now needed. 

“There was a  potential issue with recording dates and numbers manually. We developed VelTrak ensuring tag data on velvet was captured by scanning, along with most fixed data such as addresses being pre-populated into fixed forms or capable of being selected from menus.”
 

But Rezare’s input also extended beyond the farm-vet interaction. The VSD is created by whoever is buying the velvet from a farmer, whether independent buyer, processor or packhouse, compared to the old system where the farmer generated the VSD. 

The ability to read an entire bin of tagged velvet using a UHF RFID scanner enables a rapid read and creation of the VSD, from where the VSD is then sent to the farmer to complete the declaration.  

The VSD form is a legal requirement to have traceability within the supply chain.  The farmer must declare through the questions on the VSD form that their velvet consignment complies with the requirements for human consumption. 

The system ensures traceability for every movement of the velvet through the supply chain. For example, every step from farm to independent buyer, then packhouse to processor is traceable.  The tags provide visible assurance about the velvet’s compliance.  

Individuals in the supply chain are able to see one step up the chain, and one step down, with Deer Industry NZ seeing the entire chain. 

VelTrak’s requirement that all participants throughout the supply chain be registered with Deer Industry NZ ensures no opportunity for an occasional velvet player to enter and exit, risking undermining the work done by long standing players in the market. 

“The project was helped along a lot by Deer Industry NZ having a project manager on board who understood both the deer industry and software needs, this helped make a tough project somewhat easier,” says Wade. 

VelTrak will be fully live for the new season’s harvest of velvet from spring 2021, but initial feedback from early trial users has been wholly positive. 

“We have been able to develop a solution to quite a complex supply chain and unique product that has balanced the budget of the client against functionality – it only incorporates what was needed.  

“We worked closely to only build what was needed in an efficient and agile framework.” 

Why is data important for the future of the agri-food supply chain?

From growers and producers to processors and retailers, every element of today’s food and agricultural supply chain is undergoing a huge transformation.

 

Across the sector, businesses are facing increasing pressure from consumers and policy makers to be more integrated, transparent and sustainable, producing food that’s safe, environmentally friendly, and offers value for money.

It’s a change in dynamics which is undoubtedly creating challenges, but it’s also creating opportunities for innovation and evolving relationships across the supply chain, too — thanks, significantly, to data.

The value of data on farm 

When the UK’s National Food Strategy was launched in June, it stressed the importance of using data to help tackle the environmental, health and supply issues the UK is grappling with.

In its recommendations to government, it outlined plans for a £1.03bn innovation fund that would include funding for a national food system data programme, helping the food sector to collect and manage data to plan and to track progress.

For most producers, collecting data and using it to help guide their management and decision making isn’t a new concept.

Over the past decade, data collection has evolved from writing down rainfall and yields in notebooks to using advanced sensors, precision location tools and automation, capturing real-time insights to help guide day-to-day management.

This digital information explosion has prompted the development of big data systems to help producers visualise and use information effectively, which in turn has unlocked possibilities in analysing and sharing data more strategically.

From a farmer perspective, being able to look critically at individual operations and compare them to similar operations is vital to driving sector improvements and reducing costs.

Benchmarking production data, for example, has helped with everything from reducing antibiotics use in pig production, to improving genetics in the dairy industry, reducing input use on arable farms, and tracking the spread of disease in crops.

Supply chain potential 

Beyond the farm gate, data is unlocking significant potential across the supply chain, helping drive innovation, profitability and sustainability from farm to fork.

Increasingly, retailers and processors are working more closely with their networks to identify where they can streamline processes, meet targets and ensure compliance, particularly from an environmental perspective.

In the dairy sector, for example, dairy cooperative Arla has collected data from its producers as part of its Climate Checks program — a tool that identifies the carbon footprint of herds by analysing everything from feed composition to fertiliser use.

The co-op’s latest data revealed its 1,964 UK farmers produce milk with a carbon footprint of 1.13kg/litre of carbon dioxide equivalent — about half of the global average.

Given that Arla has pledged to reduce its farm emissions by 30% by 2030, data like this is important for internal benchmarking, contract requirements and meeting business targets.

What’s more, it is also enabling companies to share evidence of industry progress with policy makers, researchers and consumers — something that is becoming increasingly important as the farming industry faces pressure over its wider sustainability and environmental impact.

Meeting targets with data 

At Map of Ag, we’ve been heavily involved in projects enabling the food supply chain to use data to work collaboratively and improve financial and environmental sustainability.

Through our work with the EFFP and Kellogg’s Origins programme, for example, we’ve created systems to enable growers to measure nitrogen use efficiency and assess greenhouse gas emissions reductions through more targeted use of nitrogen.

By using sensors to monitor nitrogen use across a group of Origins farmers, we discovered application could be cut by as much as 25% while achieving the same crop yield — driving down costs as well as emissions.

These types of data-driven projects help connect the dots between growers, processors and consumers, and are key to creating transparency in the supply chain.

Data safety and collection 

Of course, the movement towards collecting and sharing data has raised questions about the ease and safety of sharing sensitive data, prompting players across the chain to work towards creating secure sharing systems.

Organisations such as the Food Standards Agency have investigated the potential for developing trust frameworks which allow data to be stored and managed centrally, while also enabling certain information to be temporarily linked in a safe way.

Map of Ag has been involved in creating a robust data storage and management system with Red Tractor, a certification organisation which assures animal welfare, food safety and environmental standards. By creating a secure ‘online filing cabinet’, producers can upload records and link them to relevant compliance schemes, enabling Red Tractor assessors to check documents before inspections to check for compliance.

And the development of our Pure Farming data integration framework is focused on putting data originators (often farmers) in control of who can use their data and for what purposes.

Systems like these not only streamline data sharing processes, they also allow all players in the chain to react to information, ultimately driving more collaborative relationships — and often provide the doorway to smart innovation.

The future 

Looking ahead, there’s no doubt the role of data in the agri-food supply chain looks set to gain greater significance, particularly as innovative data, agri-tech and food production systems are developed.

Data will be important at both the macro and micro level: Aggregated (large) data sets will help in strategic planning for national and regional policy and also corporate decision making, while highly granular data will help farmers and growers deliver sustainable productivity gains and manage the environment better through levels of detail and insights previously thought impossible. Machine learning and AI will form much of the backbone to this.

Much is also being made of the potential of Blockchain, a system which allows businesses to record and share data in a way that can’t be altered.

In the US, grocery giant Walmart is already insisting some of its growers use blockchain so that food’s history can be traced in seconds in case of a food scare, while the technology is also being used to show consumers exactly where their food comes from.

And startup ripe.io is making waves in the tech world thanks to its system which tracks the ripeness, colour and flavour of tomatoes, helping farmers determine when a plant is ready to be harvested.

Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s and Unilever are trialing Blockchain to create green contracts for farmers in Malawi to track inputs and receive a premium for using them sustainably.

Ultimately, while the full potential of data in the agri-food supply chain is still being unlocked, its potential for helping food systems become smarter, greener and more efficient means the sector is on the edge of an exciting revolution.

Businesses who are prepared to share and harness data, connect their systems and seize the opportunities data offers will be the ones who will reap success, particularly in an era focused on sustainable production and transparency. And that means all participants in the chain, from farm to fork.