Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Nuffield Trip To Harper Adams University

Last Thursday, that's nearly a week ago and it only seems like yesterday (time flies when under pressure) I met up with some of my fellow #Nuffield13 scholars at Harper Adams.  A few of us interested in Precision Farming wanted to visit Professor Simon Blackmore and the very new (in fact still being built), National Centre for Precision Farming.  Our thoughts were to have a look around the centre and the Engineering Dept of the University to see what was going on.  I had been to Harper fairly recently but Tom Sewell, one of my fellow Nuffield Scholars had not returned since he left 13 years ago!  Tom has started a Nuffield blog about his travels studying the merits of no-till farming.  It will be a fascinating subject and one I will watch closely as it's something I think we could try here in the future.
After a brief introduction it was off around the establishment to look at the various training facilities, which were very well kitted out with welding bays, (a nice rubbery smell) and through various other operational teaching zones.  One thing that really amazed us all was the 3D printer.  Now this was mentioned to me before but I didn't quite grasp it until I saw it in action.  Effectively a little robot, builds up melted plastic from a flat surface creating any shape it knows the program for.  This could be very beneficial for anything plastic on farm.  You could create a tractor panel, bearing housing, pipe brackets and all kinds of very interesting items.
After this we looked at the soil hall where experiments can be undertaken to evaluate new bits of machinery or to look at compaction within the soil.  The building can even be irrigated to simulate different soil characteristics.
After a great lunch we had a discussion lead by Professor Blackmore on where the potential for precision farming can go.  We talked about biosensors for the early detection of disease, about unmanned aerial vehicles for monitoring crops and grassland sensing.  Robots were also mentioned as a way of decreasing tractor size to have a wider window of opportunity on the fields.  As people became fewer on the farm, tractors and machinery got bigger and the window of workability got smaller.  As the window to work got smaller, tractor and implement size increased reducing still further the window of operation and so the self perpetuating cycle continues.  How do we get out of it?  Well technology will help but the decisions to be made between the ears.  I also had a really interesting conversation with Dr Mark Rutter all about PLF.  No?  Me neither, but it stands for Precision Livestock Farming.  This is much more that EID stuff but researching with GPS technology the movements of sheep across grassland.  Could this be used to monitor sheep welfare?  For example Flossie usually walks say 1,500m in a day to graze, today she only walked 600m, could she be ill or foot problems?  Tomorrow she doesn't walk at all, she has died.  Harsh example but a very good way of tracking movements.  I think there could be some further investigation here.
Many thanks to Professor Blackmore for his help, not just for Thursday, but for his generosity in supplying pictures for my Oxford Farming Conference talk, back in January. 

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