Oxford Farming Conference: Farm machinery design needs to radically change

The design of farm machinery will be turned on its head in coming years if it is to properly serve modern agriculture’s needs, according to Prof Simon Blackmore, head of engineering at Harper Adams University.

The design of tractors and other machines has remained broadly the same since the end of the Second World War, with a “bigger is better” trend producing heavier and more powerful units resulting in many farms being “overpowered”, he said.

Instead, designers should be looking to make more lithe machines that detect crop and soil quality, and disturb the land they move over less – they would inevitably become automated, as well.

“If you look at the mechanisation systems used, the tractors we have today are just bigger versions of those we had after the war,” said Prof Blackmore. “I believe that farms face a whole plethora of different pressures now.

“We’re always looking at just the pure quantity of production. That is what we’ve done since the war.”

Prof Blackmore was giving predictions for farming in 2050 at the Oxford Farming Conference .

He believes machinery will need to become radically different to manage the likely challenges of environmental constraints, tighter legislation and increasingly volatile weather and commodity prices.

“UK agriculture must become more flexible and efficient, and smarter farming systems will be needed to support smarter farms,” he said.

While he conceded there would always be a place for big machines on large fields, manufacturers’ focus on them created a “digital divide”, preventing smaller farms from accessing the latest technology.


Prof Blackmore said new tractors will need to match more closely field needs, rather than offering simple pulling power, adding that the best thing to do with soil was leave it undisturbed.

“Up to 90% of energy going into cultivation is to repair damage the machines themselves have caused,” added Prof Blackmore. “What we need are lighter, low ground-pressure vehicles that can work in wet weather conditions and not damage the soil.”

Another problem is running over ground with machinery unnecessarily, he added, saying that a “random traffic” farming system – where machinery movements are not calculated – could result in up to 96% of soil compacted.

Real-time sensors

Modern machines will be able to detect the quality and condition of plants, and feed back instantly to the farmer or agronomist, said Prof Blackmore. That could even extend to selective harvesting; picking crops only when they were ready to be harvested and leaving those still growing. “Up to 60% of a harvested crop is not of a saleable quality. So why harvest it?”

Machines could also grade and pack produce at point-of-harvest, adding value to products before they leave the farm, and improving traceability.

Bringing it to market

Despite the potential of new technology, farmers are not yet asking for it, said Prof Blackmore,

“How long will it take? I would say it is not finding their way into farming as quickly as it should.

“In Britain we’ve always been very good at innovation, but I would suggest that we’re not as good at turning these innovations into commercial products.”

He also sought to reassure those worried about automation leading to fewer jobs: “While agricultural robots will replace semi-skilled drivers, I think we will need an equal number of highly skilled agricultural engineers.”

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