The new agritech research centres set to benefit arable farmers

The government’s multimillion-pound agritech strategy aims to turn the UK into a world leader in agricultural science, which will benefit British farmers by delivering new technology.

A key part of the strategy is a £160m investment in four new research hubs, the biggest development in farm research for many years.

See also: Arable Horizons: How science is revolutionising crop growing

The four centres will focus on different subjects: Agrimetrics will be dedicated to big data; Agri EPI will concentrate on precision technology; Chap will cover applied crop research; and the fourth, the Centre of Innovation Excellence in Livestock, is solely for the livestock sector.

Precision farming and technology

Eliminating variability in crops is at the heart of the work being planned at the new Agri EPI Centre, helping farmers increase crop yield and quality.

When growing a crop such as broccoli, quite a large proportion can be wasted because it is not the right size or fails to meet quality specs, says Andy Evans, applied practice team leader at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).

Finding a solution could mean more crops meet market specification, thereby reducing losses.

Therefore, the first task of the centre is to try to understand more about this variability in crop yield and quality in order to develop potential solutions, Dr Evans says.

Farm network

This is being achieved by setting up a network of 50 commercial farms covering broad-acre cropping, horticulture and vegetables from Cornwall to Scotland.

“We will be kitting out these farms to measure variability in crop production,” he says.

The aim is to measure many factors, from soils right the way through to end-market processing, including inputs and harvest data.

“Hopefully, the data from these farms will help us to identify the log jam that is causing the variability. For example, is it disease, a nutrient problem in the field or a variety that can’t cope with two days’ frost?”

This will inform industry on where to focus research efforts. The 50 farms will also have a role in the research, as well as running training sessions and hosting on-farm meetings.

Another purpose of the centre is the establishment of think-tanks that will generate ideas to deal with problems. Members will include farmers, retailers and global machinery firms.

“Then we will develop research proposals to secure funding to tackle these problems,” says Dr Evans.

Agri EPI is also working with the other centres, including Chap (see next section). For example, there is a joint investment in a giant glasshouse at Cranfield University.

Dr Evans explains that it will enable researchers to measure everything using sensors, and to control the conditions – such as stressing the crop or inoculating it with disease.

For example, how does a new variety cope with pest or nutritional stress?

But unlike a normal glasshouse, crops are grown in proper soil and the building is large enough to accommodate machinery such as a plot combine.

Future

Looking to the future role of technology, Dr Evans says that every time a tractor is in the field, it could be measuring something.

For example, a soil sensor might measure soil nutrients or conditions, and those measurements could then be used to identify poor areas of the field. Armed with this knowledge, farmers can then rectify the problem and avoid the variability in yield and quality.

Agri EPI (Engineering, Precision, Innovation) centre at a glance

What it is: A new global hub for engineering and precision agriculture, covering the livestock, arable, aquaculture and horticulture sectors.

Location: The Centre has hubs in Edinburgh, Harper Adams University and Cranfield University.

Date established: March 2016

Funding: £17m

Aims: The Agri EPI Centre will deliver research, development, demonstration and training on precision agriculture and engineering for the livestock, arable, horticulture and aquaculture sectors.

Partner organisations: The core partners in the centre are Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), Harper Adams University, Cranfield University, Harbro, Ag Space Agriculture, Kingshay Farming and Agco.

A further 69 companies are supporting the centre, including large supermarkets, farmers, engineering and technology businesses.

Bridge the gap from farmers to researchers

A virtual research centre dedicated to applied crop research is aiming to bridge the gap between farmers and researchers.

The Centre for Crop Health and Protection (Chap) was launched in March 2016. Its new chief executive officer, Robin Batchelor, sees it as a centre of applied crop science to support advances in sustainable intensification.

“It is not aimed at blue-sky research; instead we are near market.” Mr Batchelor adds that Chap’s remit is applied and translational research.

He also highlights that it is an industry-led consortium comprising of leading domestic institutions, international and UK companies rather than having government decide what to spend research money on.

While headquartered at Fera Science, near York, it will be a virtual centre focusing on projects addressing the key crop protection issues facing UK farmers that are either being held up by a lack of investment or just need a nudge to move them along and make it on to farm.

Talking to farmers and the wider industry, Mr Batchelor says three key areas have clearly emerged as research priorities.

  • There are soil structure problems across the UK within arable crop rotations.
  • There is a “catastrophic problem of resistance to pesticides” including pests in oilseed rape and herbicide resistant blackgrass, which is leading to areas that can no longer grow wheat or oilseed rape.
  • Third, there is a need for smarter, more accurate and directed use of pesticides.

Chap has already invested in a number of facilities, including a new glasshouse and unique soil testing facility at the University of Cranfield that will enable crop growth to be tested in large bins of specific soil that is monitored (see Agri EPI).

Computer modelling

There has also been joint investment with AHDB Potatoes upgrading the Sutton Bridge Storage Research facility, that also increases the capacity for testing crops other than potatoes.

Farmers will also benefit in the next 1-2 years from investment in predictive disease modelling at Fera. This will see new prediction tools developed to provide the industry with real-time data to help farmers better target fungicide use.

Amongst the investments in the pipeline, there is the planned mesocosm facility at Fera, which will enable the measurement of edge effects of pesticides near watercourses.

This facility will strengthen Fera’s position in pesticide regulatory approval work with the big pesticide companies, thus building expertise in the UK.

It is an artificial water system over 2ha with 30 streams, and researchers will be able to monitor pesticide degradation in a natural setting.

Also, they will be able to monitor seasonality, as some products are used only at certain times of the year.

“At the moment, there is no similar facility in Europe that complies with recent EU guidelines,” he says.

Current approach

The current approach leads to greater restrictions for those that are approved, as regulators use the worst-case scenario and build in extra security.

So the benefit to farmers is that they will benefit from more discoveries and those that come through may be subject to less onerous buffer-zone restrictions.

CHAP (Crop Health and Protection) at a glance

What it is: An international centre for innovation in crop protection.

Location: It is headquartered at the National Agri-Food Innovation Campus near York.

Date established: April 2016

Funding: £21m

Aims: To bring together leading science and research organisations and industries to support sustainable and profitable farming, encourage the adoption of new plant-protection products and provide technologies for farmers to tackle threats to crop productivity.

Partner organisations: Adas, AHDB, Bayer, CABI, Cranfield University, Farmcare, Fera Science, Frontier Agriculture, Newcastle University, Rothamsted Research, Stockbridge Technology and Tesco

Bringing the data together

Arable farming is on the brink of a digital revolution, with massive amounts of valuable data being generated along the food chain.

However, this data is fragmented, held by different organisations and is often on incompatible computer systems. The result is that farmers, researchers and other industry experts cannot access or use this data.

This is set to change with the world’s first Big Data Centre of Excellence for the entire food chain being established in the UK.

At the core of Agrimetrics is a data science and modelling platform, aimed at improving access to data from across the whole of the food system – including government, supermarkets and farmers.  

Agrimetrics at a glance

What it is: A big data centre of excellence for the food and farming sector.

Location: Headquartered at Rothamsted Research, it has additional facilities at Reading University, Niab and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).

Date established: October 2015

Funding: £11.8m

Aims: To create a portal enabling access to data from the whole food chain.

Partner organisations: Partners in the network currently include Aberystwyth University, Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Cranfield University, Earlham Institute, Harper Adams University College, the James Hutton Institute, the Met Office, the University of Leeds and the University of Nottingham.

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