The big, blue 18-tonne New Holland T8.435 tractor is not the heaviest or the tallest in the world but its £3,000 tyres and tank-style tracks stand two metres high, it bristles with antenna and at, about £250,000, it must be one of the most expensive.
For that, the farmer gets a monster machine that is revolutionising big farming, field by field. Its steering is assisted by satellite, it downloads data about crops and soil straight to agronomists and farm managers, works 24-7, can link with ground sensors and drones using infrared thermal cameras and tell to within a square metre the size of a field and where the most fertile or waterlogged places are.
Better still, says Johnny Spence, a young driver from Northern Ireland demonstrating it on a large arable farm near Darlington last month, it’s as comfortable as a saloon car.
“I could spend 18 hours a day in it, no problem. It lets me spend more time looking at the field rather than trying to steer it. It makes a poor driver good, and a good driver better. It’s brilliant to drive.”
But the T8.435 is the very big tip of a huge change taking place in Britain’s fields. According to Ken Grimsdell, whose company is growing crops on 1,600 hectares (4,000 acres) in the Midlands, a farm manager may soon be able to live and work in Germany, run machines in Essex, download weather data from the US and sell the produce on the global market.
His company has invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in hi-tech tractors and combines. He uses GPS satellite technology to apply sprays and fertilisers to within a few inches, can run two machines in tandem, identify by satellite which weeds are where in a field, and measure the yield of a metre of crop as it is being cut.
“We use satellite technology to map fields and identify where fertiliser is needed and exactly what part of a field needs spraying. A tractor can be controlled by a satellite, drones can fly over a crop, record pictures and send them back to the office. The technology has made for better farming. It saves time and fuel, saves fatigue and brings some cost-saving.”
But with big data becoming widely available and Silicon Valley moving into agriculture, agricultural technology is in danger of becoming too sophisticated even for the biggest farms. “Guys sitting in glass towers in the US are dreaming up the technology but it can be far too sophisticated for the farmer,” he says.
“The technology may not be compatible with the machines. There needs to be talking done between the farmer and the technologists. We have good operators but they are not in IT. You need to be a real geek to do some of it. Some technology can be useless for the farmer. We have to rein back a bit.”
Robots will become common on farms, says Simon Blackmore, head of engineering at Harper Adams university in Shropshire, who is developing an autonomous strawberry harvester which could make redundant many in the army of Eastern Europeans who come to Britain each year for casual work.
“I think automated logistics will open up many things in agriculture that could never be done before. Little robots will be used to weed and spray fields. Drones could pick up canisters of spray and resupply them. Robotics will replace the seasonal workforce and the new workforce will need new skills.
“Big tractors have displaced much of the rural population already. It used to be 20 men and 20 horses. Then it was 20 men and one tractor. Now it’s one man and 20 tractors.”
Blackmore sees big data, machinery, climatology and agronomy all combining to increase productivity and reduce labour costs. “The technology is all here now. What was developed for very big farms is now applicable to mid-sized ones. But farmers don’t want decisions to be made by machines. They want help making decisions,” he says.
He thinks the era of giant machines on the British farm may be passing. The problem, he says is the weight of the machines which are compacting the land so much that bigger tractors are needed.
“Up to 90% of the energy going into cultivation is there to repair the damage caused by machines. If we do not damage the soil in the first place, we do not need to repair it. Horsepower does not help when weight is the problem.”
Precison farming will become more sophisticated, he says. “Machine vision will recognises the leaves of the plant in real time and record the position. Micro dot sprayers put chemical only on the leaf of the plant, saving 99.99% of the volume used.”
While agricultural robots will replace semi-skilled drivers, an equal number of highly skilled agricultural robot engineers will be needed, he says.
“Now we have access to data that we never had before. We can measure everything rather than take samples. But what the farmer will pay for is information rather than data. He needs real information, not data,” says Blackmore.
Mechanical grape harvesters are at work around the world in places such as the Chablis region of France, says Mark Crosby of New Holland. “Machines are now able to look at the grapes, check the difference between good and bad ones, identify the quality of the crop and its maturity, destem the fruit and grade the fruit while it is picking it.
“There are machines now for just about every crop. They can be used to pick olives, grapes, tulips. A combine can do far more than cut wheat or rape. It does cereals, pulses, beans, peas, pumpkin seeds, anything …”
“This is the next great progression in farming. The digital age is coming to the farm,” says Shaun Price, a precision farming specialist at CNH Industrial. We will see the first fully automated farm in the next five years, he says.
“The technology for driverless, fully connected, practically people-less precision farming is on its way to Europe,” says Antonio Marzia, vice-president of precision solutions at CNH Industrial, makers of some of the world’s largest and most advanced farm machinery.
The forerunner of the fully digital farm has just arrived in Pembrokeshire, south Wales, where cattle farmer Simon Thomas has a herd of 650 cows. He had thought about buying a robotic milking system but decided to invest in a “moo monitor”, a device that fits on a collar and measures each animal’s temperature.
“You can get technology to do just about anything on the farm now,” he says. “The monitor is able to detect whether a cow is ill or on heat. It saves me about £15,000 a year. It’s very accurate and should pay itself off in around three years,” he says.
The main advantage of the moon monitor is that it saves time and labour. It aids rather than replaces people. But, he adds, “it gives me a lot of data and updates itself all the time. That’s the problem, too. But you only use what data you need. I don’t think it could ever replace a good stockman.”
(Source – http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/20/hi-tech-agriculture-is-freeing-farmer-from-his-fields)