Vice President's Blog - 11 June 2018

Farming and crofting should embrace future technology writes Vice President Martin Kennedy.

Technology is something all forms of agriculture has embraced and, in the future, it will be key to increasing productivity, enhancing the biodiversity of our environment and, most importantly, give farmers and crofters a fair return for what we provide.

It also has the potential to make farming and crofting on really extensive units easier to manage when there are fewer people around that have the traditional skills required to help sustain what is an important part of the agricultural economy.

It's now ten years since we bought our GPS system for the tractor.  It's by no means an ‘all singing all dancing’ set up – there is no autosteer - but for a hill and upland livestock producer the difference it's made is quite satisfyingly stark.

The system we purchased was a Patchwork Blackbox Cruiser.  It had a service and an upgrade about 5 years ago which cost around £250 and it's been very reliable.  

We purchased our GPS system when there was a Land Management Option for precision farming as part of Rural Development measures whereby you received a 40% grant. The total cost before grant was £1600 and I can honestly say that there have been many benefits.

Sowing fertiliser on very bare ground that's been grazed by sheep or spreading on grass stubble for a second cut used to be quite challenging, particularly in dry weather where you struggled to see your previous mark.  The GPS system allows you to see exactly where your previous run was and guides you to where you should be on the next run, eliminating any over or underlap, and allowing your fertiliser usage to be much more efficient.

Spraying was also a very time-consuming challenge.  We would always have markers out on the field and have to get off the tractor after every round to move the markers for the next round.  This process was more difficult in uneven fields where you needed markers in the middle as well.

Now, I go around the field twice using the last pass option, set the line and continue right across the field until finished.  Much quicker, accurate and efficient.

Cutting silage or hay is also much simpler.  When you open up a break, the GPS means there is no need to pace it out, cutting out short bouts which can be so time consuming for those following on with balers and wrappers behind.  

This year, we went one step further and soil mapped three fields - about 16 ha.  The results were very interesting, especially when it came to the pH of the soil.  We took 18 samples in every half hectare, giving a more accurate result across the field, as opposed to the traditional 'W' method.

The next step was to engage a contractor with the technology and software in their tractor to spread the lime only where it was required as the field pH information was linked through the software to the computer system for the spreader which in turn either made the belt go faster or slower depending on requirement.

To the casual onlooker who didn't know what was happening, you would think the spreader was knackered as watching it going up and down the field saw some bits get a heavy dose of lime and some had nothing at all. The reality is the system was levelling up the field and again making maximum use of the product.

The next technological step is one into the unknown whereby we want to look at the research that's being done into the possibilities of virtual fencing - something that could change hill farming radically.

The idea is that you plot a virtual boundary fence by GPS on an unfenced hill and as livestock move closer to that boundary they get a signal through an electronic chip or collar that will make it uncomfortable for them if they were to try and cross the boundary.

Taking this to what I would suggest is its logical conclusion would be the ideal scenario whereby plotting an ever-reducing boundary that changed every half hour or so, you could go away for the weekend and come back on the Monday morning and all the sheep would be in the hill park ready to go!

Although that's probably a very long way off, there's no doubt that, in time, things like this could be possible and affordable.   

Author: Martin Kennedy

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About The Author

Martin Kennedy

Martin Vice President of NFU Scotland and is a tenant farmer in Highland Perthshire and farms with his wife Jane and three daughters, Jillian, Katrina and Yvonne. They have 600 ewes and 60 cows on the farm rising from 800ft to over 2,500ft. Martin served two years as Highland Perthshire branch chairman, before representing East Central region on the LFA committee in 2009. Martin then went on to be vice chairman then chaired the committee for three years. He has served as Vice President of NFUS for two years and is currently sitting on his third.

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