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Picture precision farming for a productive future

Jamie Marshall Roberts presents at Arable Horizons
Jamie Marshall Roberts gave his vision of the future for precision agriculture using innovative imagery technology at the Arable Horizons event

Adopting new technologies that will enable practical use of precision farming agronomy will be essential for farmers to overcome many of the challenges facing the industry, and to produce more food profitably from every hectare, according to Syngenta UK Head New Farming Technologies, Jamie Marshall-Roberts.

Speaking at a Farmers Weekly Arable Horizons Future Farming Technologies lecture, sponsored by Syngenta, he highlighted that some of the exciting technology to aid agronomy decisions is already out there.

“Technology for aerial imagery for crop monitoring is readily accessible, from satellites in space or drones, but the knowledge and management techniques to fully utilise the information in the field still needs to be developed,” he said.

Drone image map

Jamie pointed out that farmers have always been incredibly adept using their skills and experience to adapt and improve machinery to enhance improvement on their farms and soil types. They have also been quick to adopt new agronomy techniques and varieties to drive forward performance.

“Farmers have always sought to manage specific areas more efficiently, from historical field division based on soil type or elevation, for example. With large-scale farming for efficiency some of those hedges and divisions were lost for convenience and speed.”

“We now have the technology and capability to combine extremely high levels of precision farming, with large scale efficiency,” added James.   

Identifying variation across the field is relatively easy,” said Jamie, “doing something about it is more difficult.” Picking up variation within the crop opens the potential for managing the field more efficiently to get the best out of available plants, from nutrition or crop inputs; that can increasingly be achieved to ever finer tolerances of area.

Then, picking up variability in vegetation within the field by remote sensing could enable target spraying of specific weeds, initially in patches but, potentially in the future, for individual plants. That could bring cost savings for farmers and, with better targeting of sprays, a more sustainable product use. 

“Once you have identified the potential, then you have the chance to engineer the tools to make it happen in practice,” he said.

Currently, most sprays are applied in tank mixes, which limits the potential for variable rate application of the individual products, for example. However, technology now exists to  inject tiny amounts of required chemical into the spray line at the nozzle point of delivery, for precision tue spraying. As technology becomes more affordable, applying this to field scale variable rate applications become a reality, he suggested. Variable rate sowing (below) is already a practical proposition.  

Variable rate sowing technology

“Understanding a wheat variety and detecting its growth patterns through aerial imagery or remote sensing, for example, could enable it to be managed accordingly with input timing and rates to achieve its best possible yield potential in the field,” he advised. “Seed breeders, agronomists and the whole industry need to embrace the potential and provide the information to enable growers to use it in practice.” 

And Jamie highlighted that some of the new technology options need not be too expensive to get growers started and build up experience of technology and its potential. Drones, for example, are now widely available and relatively inexpensive, and whilst it is possible to spend many thousands on camera imagery, simple RGB cameras costing a few hundred pounds can provide incredibly detailed and useful data, he added.

“Furthermore, with the rapidly developing world of software and image processing, it could prove better to look licensed cloud based processing facilities, rather than investing in software that could be quickly obsolete,” he advised. “But you do need to consider the farm’s internet connectivity when dealing with large amounts of data.”

“It is an incredibly fast moving area and there are always new gadgets and developments. Growers don’t want to be tied into outdated technology when the next new version arrives,” he said.

“But it is crucial to take the first steps and keep abreast of the technology, to explore how it can be implemented within a farm’s existing system.”    

Arable Horizons speakers - Jamie Marshall Roberts, Tom Duckett and Simon Pearson

 Jamie Marshall Roberts, left, with other Arable Horizons Future Technologies expert presenters, Professor Tom Duckett and Professor Simon Pearson of Lincoln Institute of Agri Food Technology

You can view Jamie’s Farmers Weekly Arable Horizons Lecture here, along with other leading industry experts addressing robotics and automation in agriculture.

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Read the Farmers Weekly report here.