13 December, 2018
The latest NFRU Farm360 study shows that the uptake of robotic/automated/mechanised farming technologies by UK farming businesses is increasing. The trend is especially marked in the arable and dairy sectors, which have traditionally adopted new technologies and innovations more quickly than beef and sheep enterprises.
Our research highlights that up to 5% of arable farms and 6% of dairy farms in Great Britain already have invested in these technologies, while 11% of arable and 13% of dairy enterprises are looking to do so during the next five years. Since the early 1950’s, the workforce in farming has steadily declined creating more interest in and demand for automation methods.
The drivers of automation and robotic technologies in agriculture are much the same as in other industries and include the need to:
– Increase efficiency in terms of the amount of output per unit of labour (Source LOCUS MIS)
– Reduce cost per unit of production to improve competitiveness and profitability
– Respond to a shortage of labour
– Combat the skills gap
– Address the cost and complexity of employing staff
– Recognise that many farmers now want to work fewer hours and have more free time
– Address the lack of succession
Against a backdrop where agriculture is vulnerable to the impact of climate change and under increasing pressure from legislators and consumers to reduce its use of water, agrochemicals, fertilisers and other inputs, new technologies can help to improve yields whilst reducing labour and costs per unit of production. The adoption of new precision farming techniques will also help the industry to provide attractive, high-tech, well-paid careers, which is critical to attract new talent.
Data from the International Labour Organisation shows that between 1991 and 2017 the percentage of the European Union population working in agriculture fell from 10% to just 4%, while in the UK it halved from 2% to just 1%. Much of that decline is down to the fact that many people don’t want to work in an industry which they see as involving hard, manual labour and unsocial hours, and with easier options available, is difficult to attract staff. Increasing automation is therefore unlikely to threaten the jobs of those who currently work in the sector but will help to recruit the workers needed in an industry which will have to feed a global population that is forecast to rise from today’s 7.3 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050.
Labour-saving technologies could eventually have even greater applications in other areas of the farming industry, for example using robots to pick, sort and pack apples, soft fruit and vegetables to address the shortage of low-cost labour, improve quality and increase profitability.
Leading global investment bank, Goldman Sachs predicts farm technologies could eventually become a $240 billion market opportunity for agricultural suppliers by 2050, with smaller driverless tractors a $45 billion market on its own.
“The uptake in robotics will solve the immediate labour problem but bring new challenges and require new disciplines and skills from farm staff and advisors, if the industry is to realise these efficiencies” states Jim Williams, Head of AgAnalytics at Map of Ag, “Farm data, handled correctly, is the newest crop in agriculture, but farmers and their professional advisors will need to apply world-class data science to the data which flows from their machines. In the 21st century the typical farm may well number a data scientist among their professional advisors, alongside their agronomist, accountant and vet. Of course, none of these technologies can operate without a good mobile/data signal, which is often an issue, particularly in more remote areas, making it essential for governments and providers to address connectivity issues.”
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