Changing Times

The University of Cambridge has highlighted the risks of Britain running out of land for food within the next 20 years. This, combined with population growth, presents serious challenges for our farmers.

While the small farms dotted around the UK will play their own role in this challenge, the more pertinent task of simply surviving in uncertain, changing times cannot be ignored.

With a limited number of staff or more modest resources, this can become particularly tough. But now, aided by some impressive innovation finding its way into the agricultural sector, that has become easier than ever.

Here’s our pick of the five technologies and gadgets that can help you save both time and money, while helping to feed the world:

1. Drones

Cost: From £800

No longer the exclusive domain of the military, farmers are starting to adopt drone technology to get a different – and far more detailed – birds-eye perspective of their land. A drone can capture highly accurate images of up to hundreds of acres in a single flight, producing images of far greater resolution than satellite photos, even on a cloudy day, and at a cost far cheaper than with a fixed wing manned aircraft.

Using a selection of near infrared, visible and thermal cameras, the agricultural applications of drones are varied and vast. These include sweeping large stretches of land identifying ewes having trouble lambing (in a fraction of the time compared to driving the area), to monitoring crops affected by pests so insecticide can be sprayed just on the required area instead of the whole crop. There are strict laws governing the use of drones, so its best to seek advice on how to implement them before taking any action.

2. Lone Worker Device

Cost: From £6/month

It’s no secret farming can be a dangerous activity, with many potential risks involving working with heavy machinery and in remote locations like fields or silos. In the last 10 years, almost one person a week has been killed as a direct result of agricultural work, and many more seriously injured or made ill by their work – and the cost of things going wrong can be debilitating for small farms.

Fortunately workplace safety can be greatly bolstered by installing a cost-effective lone worker smartphone app or opting for a dedicated device. Using GPS to record workers’ location and prompting them to check-in at regular intervals to confirm their safety, a lone worker device can also automatically raise the alarm in an emergency when workers aren’t able to do so.

3. All Terrain Vehicle

Cost: Various

A new ATV is a considerable cost for any small farmer, but a reputable second-hand market could be the more-affordable route when adding this to your toolkit. Go-anywhere ATVs are a great addition to any farm, primarily thanks to their versatility – some models are available with a host of quick-release implements from ploughs and scarifiers to landscape rakes. Although significantly smaller than a diesel truck, which adds to their maneuverability about the farm, you shouldn’t be fooled by their compact dimensions – ATVs can be a robust workhorse.

Quality ATVs can include a weighty load bed large enough to carry feed and water for livestock, as well as powerful towing capacity makes them a worthy alternative to more expensive small tractors. 

4. Heat Detection Collars

Cost: From £65/cow 

Increasing your in-calf rate is one of the best ways to improve productivity and profitability on your farm. With the arrival of heat detection collars, which monitors levels of behaviour and skin temperature to know exactly when to inseminate, reproduction rates can be hugely improved while getting rid of any guess work.

Compared to cheaper methods – including calendars, tail paint and anklets – smart collars are far more accurate, less labour-intensive and can easily benefit smaller herds through the introduction of precision farming. Information from the collars can also be used to monitor overall herd health and early detection of heat stress and lameness helps reduce health care costs.

5. Electronic Ear Tags

Cost: £0.75/tag

Not only is wearable tech all the rage among humans, it’s also been finding its way into agriculture with great success. Using Radio Frequency Identification technology (RFID), smart ear tags can help farmers track their herd’s vital statistics using their smartphone to cut back on health costs, or even help identify that lamb that got separated from the flock.

Useful in both small and medium-sized flocks, RFID data can be linked to other existing records like bodyweight, number of lambs weaned and treatment withdrawal times which can help farmers make better informed decisions when selecting ewes and rams.