Lely Juno robot working in a shed with in lamb ewes© Tim Scrivener

Technological advances in agricultural production can help mitigate a potential shortage in EU migrant workers on UK farms in the long term, the NFU conference was told.

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union, a weak pound and “societal animosity” towards migrants were making it hard for farm businesses to attract seasonal and permanent foreign workers.

During a session entitled “Competitiveness: Keeping ahead of the game”, farmers were urged to embrace modern technologies, including robotics and drones, to improve crop production and increase efficiency.

See also: How science and technology could save our soils

About 1,000 delegates were given an update on the latest and emerging technologies to reach UK farms.

Simon Blackmore, head of robotics and automation at Harper Adams University, said new technologies could offer solutions to labour shortages.

“We don’t see robots running around in this country. It’s not through lack of technology, but a lack of investment,” said Prof Blackmore.

“We need new start-up companies to get these technologies into the industry. I’m working with young farmers to do this.”

Prof Blackmore highlighted areas of agri-technology he and colleagues were working on at Harper’s Agri-Epi Centre.

These included:

  • Laser weed control using cameras to identify weeds and highly selective herbicides to remove them
  • Micro droplet application of chemicals directly on 100% of target leaf
  • Driverless tractors on farms, but not on public roads
  • Machines with intelligently targeted inputs
  • Robotic strawberry harvesting

Prof Blackmore predicted the growth through economies of scale in UK agriculture was “coming to an end”.

“Machines have been getting bigger due to driver costs, but they are now at their maximum size,” he said.

“This is because they have reached a maximum size to be transported through railway tunnels. Big tractors are good for large fields, but they cannot be used for small fields.”

New on-farm technologies

Farmers on the panel told delegates how agri-technology was transforming their businesses.

Cheshire dairy farmer Andrew Griffiths, of JM Griffith and Son, said robotic milking of cows and a 24-hour robotic feeding system enabled him to spend more time with his two children.

Fruit farmer Harry Hall, a managing partner of the Berkshire- and Sussex-based Hall Hunter Partnership, said glasshouses and lighting offered a “near-perfect growing season year round”.

Derbyshire poultry farmer David Speller said an investment in cameras, sensors and sounds had spurred “a real positive adventure in new technology”.

But NFU vice-president Guy Smith said the practitioners were quite clear that solutions were nowhere near the commercial stage to offer a short-term answer to the farm labour crisis.