Hi-tech agriculture is freeing the farmer from his fields
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.”