Agri-Tech Week 2020 RNAA: Back to reality? Pushing the boundaries in agri-tech and innovation

RNAA Agri-Tech Week 2020

In a week of online events, the RNAA’s Agri-Tech Week event looked at how agricultural show societies have harnessed the digital world to offer vital education, promotion, and connection during the Covid pandemic. Emily Norton found inspiring examples of successful and rapid adaptation, and optimism for the future, both at home and abroad.

Getting back to face-to-face

In its 116-year history the ‘Royal Welsh’ has developed into a major event. “It’s like a layer cake,” says Steve Hughson, chief executive of the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society. “So many layers: livestock, food, shopping, social, politics and business. It’s a real cultural event attracting people from across the UK.”

The show has always innovated; it is one of the first 5G-enabled showgrounds in the whole of the UK, and during 2020 has switched to hosting virtual events.

RNAA - Royal Welsh Agricultural Society

But Steve envisages face-to-face events becoming viable again soon, in spite of Covid restrictions. “We need to see a return to well-regulated outdoor events,” he says.

“In spite of people becoming ‘screen weary’ we see virtual events as here to stay, alongside in-person events. There’s real potential in smaller sector-specific events, run with social distancing, such as the Grassland Event which typically attracts less than 5,000 attendees compared to the 50 – 60,000 we see at bigger events.”

“2021 and beyond present us with opportunities to refocus on what can work really well in the current conditions.”

A hybrid for the future

Best known for its Agritechnica event, the DLG represents a forward-thinking force in German agriculture. “We have a real focus on innovation and science,” explains Dr Reinhard Grandke, DLG’s chief executive.

“Covid has been a catastrophe,” says Reinhard. “Our in-person events have not been able to take place although many have switched to virtual which has worked well, and in some cases has attracted more participants than real events.”


Reinhard has an optimistic view on DLG’s post-Covid future: “When the pandemic is over we expect bigger attendances than before due to increased demand for face-to-face events. We’ll combine these with virtual science-based functions as hybrid events.”

“In the meantime, we’re working closely with our event exhibitors and providing online opportunities and digital platforms to allow them to get in front of customers once again.”

Broadcasting to the world

Attracting more than 130,000 visitors over a four-day period, National Fieldays events give New Zealand’s farmers and manufacturers exposure domestically and abroad. “But on March 16 the business came to a complete halt as mass gatherings were cancelled,” remembers Peter Nation, chief executive of the New Zealand National Fieldays Society.

RNAA - NZ Fieldays Society

“But we set our sights on keeping our brand and our story alive. We set about putting Fieldays online as best we could like a physical event; we really wanted to retain the culture and the look and feel of face-to-face Fieldays. We launched the exhibitor platform and had over 24 hours of filmed content to present.”

The results were impressive, says Peter, and created valuable opportunities to further expand New Zealand’s role on the global agricultural stage. “We had over 90,000 viewers in New Zealand and in more than 75 countries worldwide.”

“Over 90% of online exhibitors have confirmed they’ll be back next year, when we hope to integrate physical and online events to help us maintain our overseas reach. We’re ramping up our ability to reach out to the world.”

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Agri-Tech Week 2020 NRP: Crops and non-chemical pest control – genetics, environment and biodiversity

non-chemical pest control NRP event ATW20 feat

Can we use less water while still staying on top of scab in potatoes? How can we control cabbage stem flea beetle safely and effectively without neonicotinoids? And how can we help plants to strengthen their own defences against aphids? These are just some of the key questions facing farmers that are being tackled by scientists at the Norwich Research Park. Non-chemical pest control was the subject of a Agri-Tech Week 2020 webinar, hosted by the Norwich Research Park.

As both climate and legislation continue to change, harnessing beneficial insects and understanding relationships between microbes becomes increasingly important in the search for non-chemical pest control.

Tackling water use for scab control in potatoes

“Costing growers £3m annually, and requiring huge quantities of irrigation water to control, scab in potatoes is a real problem for the potato industry in the UK,” explained Dr Jake Malone, a research scientist at the John Innes Centre (JIC). “But a better understanding of how microbiological activity could help us to tackle it would allow growers to use considerably less water in its control.”

The bacterium causing scab, Streptomyces scabies, is just one of the millions of species found in soils.

NRP - Soil bacteria are incredibly diverse

Could advances in non-chemical pest control  making growing oilseed rape viable without neonicotinoids?

“A 35% drop in oilseed rape (OSR) production in the UK since neonicotinoids were withdrawn, and a jump in pyrethoid resistance in cabbage stem flea beetle (CSFB) from less than 2% to 22% over the last three years.”

These figures, from Dr Rachel Wells, JIC researcher in molecular genetics and plant breeding, underpin her drive to discover how growers can tackle CSFB as the current chemical armoury becomes ever more depleted. “Key to this is to develop a greater understanding of crop pests, and their interactions with plants” she explains.

One of the first challenges to better understanding the cabbage stem flea beetle, was studying them in laboratory conditions. “Looking at insect resistance in crop variety trials is challenging for a range of reasons, so we had to develop a means of rearing them in the lab, which is now how we do much of our research into them.”

Breakthough shows tiny wasp can control cabbage stem flea beetle 

But an incident which compromised a particular batch of lab-reared CSFB led to a valuable breakthrough. In 2017 rapid deaths in several CSFB colonies was seen following the introduction of some new colonies to the laboratory. These newly-introduced insects brought with them tiny wasps which parasitise the flea beetle. Further lab research showed that control of up to 53% could be achieved using this species of wasp, Microtonus brassicae.

Unpalatable varieties of OSR reduce loss 

“Adjusting management regimes, such as reducing soil disturbance, improved habitat in field margins and providing nectar sources for adult wasps can all make a difference to how well they control CSFB in the field, especially as we’re seeing pyrethoid resistance in flea beetle increasing,” said Dr Wells.

Further research shows that by selecting different traits relating to plant palatability could allow breeders to create new varieties which were less appealing to flea beetle.” Usually the pathway from lab to commercial crop production can take around fifteen years, by using ‘speed-breeding’ and working closely with plant breeders we hope to have viable new varieties of OSR on the market within the next five years.”

NRP - Phenotyping for insect resistance is challenging

Understanding plant response to aphids

As our warming climate increases the damage caused to crops by aphids, JIC postgraduate researcher James Canham explained the importance of tackling these problems at the molecular level. “Sap-feeding insects, such as the green peach aphid, transmit more than 50% of plant viruses in the UK. As successive insecticides are withdrawn alternative approaches to their control are required.”

Recent advancements have revealed previously hidden plant responses to attack by aphids. Calcium has been found to play a key role here, and localised changes in calcium levels indicate that the plant is being attacked and is showing a strong immune response.

But James’ research has shown that ‘effectors’, introduced to the plant in the saliva of aphids, interfere with and suppress this immune response, increasing the aphids’ ability to colonise the host plant. By better understanding and manipulating these effectors he sees potential in developing mechanisms to confer resistance to aphid attack.

Plant’s immune response could provide protection 

“However, an effector-mediated defence may not confer resistance to the disease carried by the aphids, as it might occur too late, after the virus has already passed into the plant. A very early host plant immune response (i.e. one which occurs before the virus can pass from the aphid’s saliva into the host plant) holds considerably more potential and is an area where we’re researching further.”

Delegates at the webinar also heard about a number of other exciting research areas:

  • Nasmille Larke-Mejia described her work studying soil microbiological diversity and the impacts that changes in agricultural practice can have have on this microbiome.
  • Dr Victor Soria-Carraso explained the role that the JIC Entomology & Insectary facility plays in supporting research involving insects, and their potential role in providing solutions to some of today’s problems.
  • And finally, Dr Lewis Spurgin talked about how ‘citizen science’, where sugar beet growers and the British Beet Growers Organisation have sent in samples of sugar beet leaf miner insects, has helped to improve understanding of this little-known species.

More information about the John Innes Centre. 

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Agri-Tech Week 2020 NIAB: Soil health and the circular economy – a sustainable future for agriculture

Sustainable farming systems

The sustainability of agriculture is a hot topic. When considering our farming systems, the three main pillars of consideration are the impact on society, the economy and the environment. As we transition into the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), sustainable practices are becoming a greater focus for farmers.

Benchmarking different farming systems by utilising farm business data from over 99,000 farms, Prof. Adrian Collins (Rothamsted Research) and his team have worked with farmers to explore the best management practices in respect to the environmental performance on farm. Utilising the known information about comparable farming systems across the country, areas are identified for attention, simulations can be carried out to show the impact of what could happen.

Adrian Collins, Rothamsted Research

“This data is really useful as a benchmarking tool for farmers, particularly in the context of ELMS. The data can then be used to provide support and advice on suitable interventions” said Prof Collins. The focus could include the range and number of livestock or energy use.

We heard from a number of research projects investigating various sustainable practices throughout the event, provided a bigger picture of practical solutions on offer to farmers.

How can we increase soil organic matter?

The importance of having healthy soils has never been more greatly understood. Ensuring a high level of soil organic matter results in better soil structure, feeds beneficial microbes, and has a knock-on effect on the crop.

Adding organic soil amendments can contribute to the improvement of soil health. “These amendments can range from highly nitrogenous organic wastes such as farm animal manure, to lower grade amendments for mulches” explains Dr Ralph Noble, Technical Director at Microbiotech Ltd. Introducing anaerobic digestate or compost may be seen to increase the risk of contamination and introduction of pest and disease.

Ralph Noble, Microbiotech

Ralph demonstrated that due to the heat involved in the processing of such products most pests and diseases cannot survive and the only risk is then due to surface contamination during storage. In fact, adding organic amendments can suppress some pests and diseases, with diseases such as apple replant disease and in pests such as Black vine weevil. This also provides the opportunity to add in other beneficial organisms such as mycorrhizal fungi and biocontrol agents which when combined with compost had the most beneficial impact

The use of certain plants in different leys in a crop rotation is also emerging as another way to add to the soil organic matter. Patrick McKenna, Postdoctoral Research Associate, discussed a NIAB trial in which early results have indicated a higher level of dry matter and organic matter from the diverse herbal ley treatment in comparison to the simple grass treatment.

Farmer Insight – ‘try everything and preclude nothing’

Craig Livingstone, Farm Manager of Lockerley Estate, gave an insight into the journey he is on to develop his farm practices. “Our approach to developing a more regenerative system is to be flexible across our varied soil types on the farm, try everything and preclude nothing”. By exploring min till, introduction of livestock, greater diversity in the rotation, use of cover crops and a more focused assessment of the soil health, we’ve seen an increase in key nutrients, a reduction in the use of fertilisers and pesticides and a noticeable difference in the health of their soils. Looking to the future, work with the Small Robot Company could open up more possibilities but current practices allow for solutions to today’s problems.

How can we better manage nutrients for the benefit of crops and soils?

Ensuring the right levels of plant nutrition contributes to good soil health and minimises environmental impact.

The use of digestate is one way farmers can add nitrogen back into their soils. A group of farmers have been part of an Innovative Farmers project to explore how they could make digestate work harder for them and have a reduced environmental impact. Laura Bouvet, Agri-TechE Knowledge Exchange Manager, oversaw the project which found that cover crops reduced leaching of the nitrogen after digestate application.

Natalia Gulbis, Plantworks

Adding bacteria alongside nitrogen fertiliser has also been proven to support a higher crop yield. Having developed the SR3 bacteria, Natalia Gulbis, Technical and Arable Farming Lead – Plantworks Ltd, shared trials that have been carried out trials to explore the benefits of this product finding that SR3 reduced the level of Nitrogen needing to be applied on Winter Wheat increasing the crop yield and final profit.

But maybe looking elsewhere for a sustainable alternative to crop nutrition and create a greater circular economy, designing out waste, re-using more product and lowering our carbon footprint. Batteries could be the answer. 80% of an Alkaline battery is Manganese & Zinc, this can be extracted and purified which can then be used to for crop nutrition according to David Harrod of Payne Crop Nutrition Ltd.

Is growing in soil still the best way of growing?

Leafy salads have increased in demand over the last 10 years but are still impacted by numerous challenges including climate, pests and disease, distance to market and seasonal consumer demand and consistency.

So is the answer to take control and grow another way?

Graham Taylor, Research Scientist – NIAB explained the Hy4Dense project in which hydroponics is being trailed as a ‘hospital environment’ for growing salad crops as it provides a contamination free environment in which all elements of the process can be controlled as well as the opportunity to plant in higher density. The research will also explore other mediums alternative to soil to offer the same filtration, algal mitigation and water retention that soils does.

Farmer Insight – ‘the problem is we have to harvest every day, we can’t say to Mr Tesco we can’t cut today’

Balancing improving soil health alongside the requirements of babyleaf salad production is a challenge. “Unlike cereals, growing salads crops are more constrained in how soil health can be enhanced due to the need to produce safe food which removes some of the more widely used practices.” explained Adam Lockwood, Managing Director of Lockwood Salads Ltd . There are still ways: soil enhancements are being made through the use of cover crops; better weather forecasting, irrigation infrastructure and investment in equipment.

The future outlook would favour controlled environment growing to overcome a number of the current challenges, maintain demand and this will likely include the use of robotics.

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Agri-Tech Week 2020 AHDB: Technologies to enhance soil monitoring and crop management

soil health

What can spectroscopy, geophysics and imaging tell us about the status of our crop and soils management practices?

Getting a clear and quantifiable picture of soil heath and measuring the impact of certain crop management and cultivation practices on soils is notoriously difficult. The AHDB-funded Crop Rotations programme is exploring how technologies used in the fields of imagery and geophysics can be applied to better understand soils to help fill the knowledge gap.

Fingerprinting the profile of agricultural soils

An important measure of soil health is organic matter content. “Fourier Transform Infra-red (FTIR) spectroscopy is like chemical fingerprinting and can give us insights into the soil organic matter content of soils very accurately” said Dr Jean Robertson, Head of Infrared Spectroscopy at the James Hutton Institute (JHI). “Using FTIR, we were able to capture subtle but evident differences between the addition of farm yard manure and inorganic fertilisers over time, at Rothamsted’s long term experimental sites.”

Another important measure for assessing soil health is porosity. “Soil pores structure affects water behaviour in soil and has an impact on how fast roots can elongate into the soil” explained Dr Tracey Valentine, root biologist at JHI. Multispectral imaging, a tool commonly used for remote-sensing above ground, has the potential to be used as a tool for assessing soil porosity. “Already, we are seeing promising results from the comparison between an intact and repacked soil core” said Dr Valentine.

These technologies are still in their early stages and some more work is needed to see them form part of the soil health tool kit for farmers in the future. But already, experiments have shown that there are some interesting insights to be gained.

Applying the laws of geophysics to soils

One aspect of geophysics that is fast gaining traction in agriculture is soil electrical conductivity. “It is essentially a measure of how easily an electrical current can flow through soil” explained Dr Andy Binley, Professor of geophysics at Lancaster University. “Because current flows through fluid, wet soils show higher conductivity than dry soils; so soil conductivity can be used as a proxy for soil moisture, dryness and compaction”.

“It is a popular method because it is non-invasive, provides rapid results and can sense to several metres depth” emphasised Prof Binley. “In our potato field experiment, the drier and more compacted soils were less conductive than the wetter and less compacted soils. We also related this data to the impact such characteristics can have on the plants above ground – the uncompacted well-watered soil was associated with the densest plant canopy.”

“It’s interesting because soil conductivity is already commercially available. However, what is on the market provides more of a qualitative snapshot. Going forward we want to be able to provide more quantitative information from measurements over time” concluded Prof Binley.

Establishing crop management zones

Effectively identifying field variability is an important starting point to implement a more targeted approach to managing inputs and crops. Dr Alice Milne, agricultural systems modeller at Rothamsted Research, has been mining potato yield monitor data and NDVI (a type of vegetation index) to identify whether crop management zones can be established. The data suggests that this is possible with both types of data but significant differences between zones were not always observed in all fields tested.

“NDVI data only gets us so far. It’s the following step of management decision-making that is important for farmers. To determine how to manage each of these different zones, it’s really important to integrate other sources of information into the process, together with farmer knowledge” concluded Dr Milne.

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Agri-Tech Week 2020 ADAS: crop sensing for field vegetables

Inno-Veg drone

ADAS hosts: Use of crop sensing in field vegetables and potato crops

Monday 9th November: 9:30-11:00

The event brought together drone imagery and remote-sensing experts, together with researchers and growers from the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden and Australia.

ADAS ATW 2020 - all speakers

Theory and practice: How to use Ag-tech in the real world?

Bert Rijk of Dutch-based Aurea Imaging

Aurea started off as building their own unmanned aerial vehicles but have now moved to data processing and analysis. The team today consists mainly of data analysts who now work closely with a network of drone pilots, described by Bert as ‘Uber for drone pilots’

Drones used consist of fixed wing drones, which are better suited for larger areas, and ‘(heli)copter’ drones, which can fly closer to the ground. Different types of sensors are used also; from simply visual to multispectral and thermal imaging. More recently, it’s the introduction of RTK GPS technology that has been a real game changer for remote sensing, explained Bert. This type of technology enables precise aligning of images taken from several different flights over time – this is particularly useful in spot spraying and phenotyping scenarios where precision is key.

‘One of the biggest challenges is how you integrate drone imagery into your business profitably’ highlighted Bert. This is why Aurea works with growers and breeders to support them with their decision-making in a way that makes financial sense for the business.

Bert then went on to highlight examples where drone imagery has made a positive difference to their clients. Potato growers have been able to use emergence maps of potato fields to use for insurance purposes when dealing with seed producers that will have supplied the potato seeds they have planted. In other cases, breeders have come to Aurea to assess the potential use of remote-sensing compared to manual observations. For example, flower breeders concluded that the duration and intensity of flowering was better assessed with Aurea’s imagery analysis than manual observations.

ADAS event - Bert screenshot

Bert’s key message was to ‘start with what your client wants, don’t over focus on the technology and start simple’.

Analysis of field scale crop reflectance data using ADAS Agronomics data analysis methods

Susie Roques of ADAS

For root crops and other vegetables, assessing and predicting marketable yield is still a hot question for growers. As a result, scientists at ADAS and other partner research institute in Belgium, Netherlands and France are exploring whether imagery data be used as a proxy for marketable yield for potatoes and vegetables, as part of the EU-funded Interreg 2 Seas ‘INNO-VEG’ project.

The project has made use of Agronomics, a statistical tool developed by ADAS in conjunction with the British Geological Survey. This has enabled the modelling of underlying field variation in on-farm strip-line trials. And as a result, has made results of over 200 on-farm trials to date more robust.

Susie, crop physiologist at ADAS, shared the results collected from onion and vining pea trials, where different types of imagery based on different vegetation indices were assessed (NDVI and NDRE for example). For vining peas, results have shown that NDRE provides a better yield prediction compared to NDVI, which is consistent with the known suitability of NDRE for assessing dense canopy crops. For onions, a good correlation was observed between drone measurements and marketable yields. This time, it was NDVI that showed the best correlation. These couple of examples show how it’s important to consider the type of crop you are working with, and which vegetation index might be better suited.

With now up to 200 trials being assessed with Agronomics, some important lessons have emerged:

  • An even field is key for more precise results.
  • Variation across tractor tramlines is OK, as all treatments will be exposed to that variation.
  • Less is more – keeping the number of treatments relatively low, for example by simply testing against the farm standard, will keep things simple.

Crop sensing making sense?

Jacob van den Borne of Van den Borne Farm

Jacob farms over 500 hectares of potatoes in the Netherlands. Innovation and the integration of different technologies are integral to the success of his business.

On the farm, sensor data is collected from tractor cabs, spray booms, drones and satellites. This crop data is collected with soils and weather data and used to inform and continually improve crop management decisions such as irrigation management, fungicide and fertiliser applications. This successful integration of data has translated in significant reductions of input use across the farm.

  • Emerging weeds have been reduced by 90 % thanks to spot spraying
  • Fungicide application to treat late blight has been significantly reduced by implementing variable rate application and only targeting the plants that need treating
  • Water usage has been reduced thanks to the use of thermal imaging to assess soil moisture content and integrating it with weather data to optimise irrigation scheduling.

Jacob does not solely rely on sensor technologies. For him, ground trothing the data is as important so regular sampling of tubers and leaf canopy also form part of field evaluations.

ATW ADAS event - Jacob screenshot 1
ATW ADAS event - Jacob screenshot 2

Validating precision ag tech for vegetables

Julie O’Halloran of Queensland Department of Agriculture & Fisheries

Julie has been working with farmers in an Australian government-funded project looking to encourage the adoption of precision agriculture technologies on more vegetable farms. Imagery from drones has received relatively little take-up on vegetable farms compared to arable farms.

The project aimed at putting case studies together to showcase how commercially-available remote sensing technology and data analytics can make a difference on farm and to get a clear breakdown of the cost-benefit ratio for farmers.

Some of these case studies included assessing flowering area in maize and head counting in lettuces.  The data obtained from maize flowering areas enabled the scheduling of spray timing applications around this critical growth stage. For lettuces, the automated plant count at different stages of the growing season has highlighted a 40 % discrepancy between the number of planted and packed lettuces.

Julie also pointed to the barriers to technology adoption in vegetables that were encountered during the project. Some of these barriers included a low awareness of commercially-available technology, a lack of technical support in adopting new tools and their perceived vs actual cost when accounting for time and money invested.

ATW 2020 ADAS event - Julie screenshot

Industry view

Jeff from Hummingbird Technologies highlighted some of the data analytics expertise available at the company and its increasing focus on using remote sensing data and associated AI-powered analytics to develop sustainability assessment tools, such as carbon sequestration.

Russel from AgriVue gave an example of how AgriVue’s drone flying technology was used in a field experiment to compare the suitability of the resulting imagery with that of manual assessments. A 0.9 correlation was achieved, illustrating that crop sensing can go hand in hand with manual scores.

Igor from Solvi showcased how Solvi’s farmer-friendly data collection and analytics platform can be used for estimating yield in cabbages, automating plant counts and monitoring weeds.