Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Brave new world in farming

Beverley: Max Perris of Crawford and Company gave a fascinating presentation on the technological frontier in agriculture at the Geo-Agriculture conference here today. I will deal with what he had to say about robotics below, but his overall theme was that there is going to be more technological change in farming in the next twenty years than in the last two hundred.

He forecast that by 2040 only forty per cent of protein would come from animals produced for meat. Insects would become important as they offered protein, well balanced nutrients and were high in fibre along with low carbohydrates. We had a sample of crickets on our table. I must say they reminded me of the fried wasps I was offered as a delicacy in a remote part of China: fortunately my driver ate them. But attitudes could change. The Guardian reckons that the 'yuk' factor could decline: Fashionable food of future

Vertical farming using hydroponics offered many possibilities with the speaker referring to an operation under Clapham Junction in London. The produce was non-seasonal, there were fewer food miles and uniformity of product was achievable. However, the initial capital cost was high and it was important to get the lighting right. One could produce crops like salads and tomatoes but not wheat.

Risks included machinery breakdown with replacement parts having to be sourced from abroad. If there was a fire, debris removal would be costly. I wouldn't like to be one of the troglodytes that worked there!

What are the pros and cons of robotic milking?

Some dairy farmers see this as a way of 'Brexit proofing' their businesses. It is. however, a relatively expensive solution and one more appropriate to larger units. It requires a different style of working and presents new animal welfare challenges.

As far as cost is concerned, a farmer would need one unit per 55 low yield milkers. Each unit costs £100k - £120k and a new shed may be needed as well. So a farm with 100 milkers, not a particularly large farm by today's standards, would need to invest £300k. This would be spread over 15-20 years with bank borrowing, but units typically have a life of 10-15 years.

EU productivity grants have been available which cover 40 per cent of the capital cost, but I am uncertain whether these would be available after Brexit, although they would be consistent with a technology oriented investment strategy. No one knows what will happen to the milk price over the next decade, but I would be surprised if it went up in real terms.

With a robotic unit the cow is typically asked to find her own way to the milking unit and milk herself. This necessitates training for the herd person and the cow. It is important that there are no obstacles in the way of the cow, hence the need for a new shed in many cases. The cow will need access several times a day during an unhindered and uncomplicated route.

Staff need to be available 24/7 as the units send out alerts if there is any kind of problem and they need to be able to sort out software glitches. We all know how IT problems can drive us crazy, especially in the early hours of the morning. Staff need to learn new skills.

It does imply a new way of working with less repetitive work: being in a traditional herring bone parlour with cows urinating in all directions can be challenging. However, farmers need to think through how well they would adapt to this new technology and about its impact on impact on animal welfare, potentially positive but with new challenges.

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