Opinion: Latest farming kit’s done us no favours

I love technology. Airyolland bristles with smartphones, laptop computers and an electronic tag reading device. My ewes are synchronised to lamb at the same time, plus we have mules that are full of Beltex embryos. But, please don’t mistake me for a Luddite when I say that technology has done hill and upland farmers no favours recently.

All the good stuff such as ultrasound pregnancy scanning and breeding techniques using artificial insemination and embryo technology is now old hat. They were groundbreaking technologies of their time that brought very tangible benefits to livestock farmers. Targeted feeding, following pregnancy scanning and accelerated breeding programs using AI and embryo flushing programs brought efficiency and genetic gain to many farms.

However, the newest technologies have only brought us added cost with disaster not far behind. Basically, if it involves satellites, cameras, transponders, receivers or microscopes then the chances are it will have brought us costs without bringing rewards.

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The National Scrapie Plan is a superb example. Remember it? Rid the world of sheep predisposed to contracting scrapie was the master plan. It mustered everything technology could throw at us. It involved genotyping blood, the issuing of barcoded certificates, the insertion of EID boluses, and the final humiliation was to have a “peeping” gadget waved about our rams in the market to read the wretched bolus.

More time and effort was wasted while we all read-up on genotyping jargon. Farmers everywhere could speak with authority on the subject of homozygous and heterozygous alleles as if their lives depended on it.

As it turned out, the scientists didn’t know their ARRs from their ELBOs. The discovery of atypical scrapie and the stark realisation that thousands of exceptional animals had been needlessly devalued or destroyed has left that particular technology in a dark wee place where only the very brave still go.

“As it turned out, the scientists didn’t know their ARRs from their ELBOs.”
Neale McQuistin

GPS and mapping technologies are another pair of dodgy characters skulking about in the hills doing us no good. Your heart sinks every time a man appears in your yard clutching a box of tricks and an aerial that appears to be sticking out of the top of his head. A visit from the “Paul Daniels” man will usually mean a few more hectares of your land are about to disappear. Every nook and cranny that isn’t cropped or grazed is carefully measured and given a tap with his wand to make it “vanish”. Never mind the actual surface area of slopes, only their footprint – as viewed from above – is measured. If mapping technology was a bit less Paul Daniels and a bit more Debbie McGee then we would all be happier. Those very attractive mounds and valleys that make our hills and uplands look so good are being ignored.

If “area of land” is to be our lord and master for the foreseeable future, then it’s important farmers in the hills should not be discriminated against compared with their colleagues on flat land. Everything else seems to be available in 3D nowadays so let’s have the “Debbie upgrade” installed and measure all the surface area.

And finally, they tell me that boffins are now working on a transponder for hill sheep that can be tracked from space. What an advance that will be. Once they have perfected the design of the device so that there is no danger of it sticking in the digestive tract of sea eagle chicks, we will have conclusive evidence sheep are now climbing trees. Whoopee doo – we all can’t wait.