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Bringing you news, opinion and innovation in technological advances in agriculture, horticulture and aquaculture, check out the Agri-EPI blog.
Exploring precision farming, including engineering, technology and innovation in UK agriculture across crops, land management and livestock, our blog includes input from our broad sector membership and academic partners the length and breadth of the UK.
Offering you ideas and innovation from national and international projects and initiatives, don’t miss out!

Improving wheat yield predictions with crop image technology

Novel applications developed by researchers at BioSense Institute in Serbia are dedicated to make deep learning technology a widely accepted practice in agriculture, providing small and big farm holders to benefit from precision farming technology.

BioSense, the Serbian Research and Development Institute for Information Technologies in Biosystems, is a multidisciplinary research institute for agriculture of the future. The wheat yield prediction research conducted in Serbia aims to increase the collection of farm management data, help farmers understand more about their farm business by using sensor technology and IoT applications, and reduce farm labour.

Wheat yield experiments

Wheat is one of the most important crop types in food production worldwide. Due to increasing food demand and rising population, it is necessary to boost production and supplies of wheat and other cereals.

In 2019, BioSense Institute, observed wheat in different experimental field stages and did this for three consecutive seasons. Cameras used during the experiment were the FLIR SC620 in season one and two, and a thermal camera in the third season. By taking pictures of the wheat growing in their field (four weeks before harvest), and uploading it through a mobile application, farmers were able to gain information about the wheat yield estimate based on the current state of growth.

The objective of this research is to enable the farmer to use imagery to detect at an earlier stage when estimated yields are below average and timely apply agronomic treatments to improve yield.

Farm efficiency with data management

The automatization of ear density calculation (number of ears per unit ground area, usually 1m2), which is one of the main agronomic yield components in determining grain yield in wheat, can provide fast evaluation of this attribute and potentially save 200 hours of manual work, ease monitoring, and increase crop management practice efficiency. This will save money from potential yield reduction, which can cause big losses in the farmers’ investments.

The currently used process of yield prediction includes manual and tedious work. The farmer takes samples from the area of 1m2 from the field (if the field is larger, then from a few locations within a field), and measures the biomass. The next step is to separate and count the ears of wheat manually. Since the counting of one sample requires up to 1 hour, while the number of samples can easily exceed 200, this can result in more than 200 working hours, or two to three weeks of manual labour that could be avoided.

The collected dataset comprises RGB and thermal images. Thermal images give us information about the difference in temperature between the ears and their background through their colouring and ease ear detection. Images were taken in four dates on two locations in two stages of wheat growth.

Power of deep learning

Since we have witnessed a huge breakthrough of neural networks, especially in image processing, deep learning has greatly outperformed classical models and algorithms. The nature of deep learning is that the addition of more data improves the quality of results, so by uploading images from farmers (crowd sourcing), the initial database will be expanded, so the algorithm will achieve better and more accurate results.

For more information about the methodologies used in this research by BioSense Institute, visit the DRAGON website.

 

Photo gallery:

 

Data-driven precision agriculture by DRAGON

Agri-EPI Centre is a core partner within the data-driven agriculture services and skill acquisition project DRAGON. The aim of the project is to enable communication skill transfer and knowledge exchange between research organisations and end users through big data and effective data analytics.

 

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This article is an extract from an article of Željana Grbović – Junior Researcher, BioSense Institute – published on www.datadragon.eu.

Head of Farm Network Gavin Dick Reflects on Harvest

As harvest nears completion across the country and minds begin to focus on autumn drilling, it’s time to begin to reflect on the harvest and current growing season and start to assimilate areas to focus on at the in-depth review which should be taking place later in the year.

It has been another challenging growing season resulting in a lot of variation in yields across the country, between farms and within fields – this pattern has repeated itself over a few years now and you have to wonder if this is the new normal? If it is, how sustainable is it? How long can we sit back and accept that it’s just the weather and we can’t do anything about it?

Adopting harvest technology

Not much longer, I suspect. We have to take a pro-active approach and start measuring that variation early in the production cycle and trying to understand why that area in the field is yielding less than other areas – the technology is there to help, from satellite imagery to soil probes measuring compaction, moisture and a range of other factors.

Improving yield

It may be that there is no solution to improving the yield in a particular area and if so, then it is important to have an idea what the yield will actually be, giving a more accurate production figure for the farm. This makes marketing more effective in that you can sell more forward if the price is high without the risk of over committing and being penalised. You can accept the lower average yield but mitigate with a higher average price – the BioSense app is a good example of emerging technology which will deliver the detailed information to allow this.

By the same measure you should also know your Costs of Production applied to that lower yielding area to judge whether you should have drilled it at all!

Crop quality

The other variation is crop quality – we currently look at the average protein across the whole wheat field (or even the crop!) and that contributes to whether we get a milling premium or not. Technology now measures protein on the combine so that each trailer load will have a specific protein content which can then be stored separately and/or blended to increase the proportion of the crop receiving the milling premium.

The days of managing farm businesses by measuring averages are limited and farm business managers will have to adopt technology which allows management by measuring absolutes, facilitating better informed decision making through the growing season.

So as the drills are made ready, take a pause to look at satellite images, drone footage, yield maps, ground sensors, mobile apps or whatever measures you have, identify the variations and go have a look to see what’s going on.

Best thing you can do is still to get out your Soil Porosity & Aeration Determination Equipment!

 


Gavin Dick

Gavin has a broad working experience in agriculture, having managed a large farming enterprise in Aberdeenshire including combinable crops, seed potatoes, pigs, poultry and 650 dairy cows producing milk for ice-cream through a robotic milking system. He then moved to manage an estate in Perthshire specialising in pedigree beef and combinable crops, as well as a country house hotel with shooting and fishing interests. Gavin worked at SAC before moving to AHDB where he worked with farmers in a Knowledge Exchange role to broaden their business management skills and, as he joined Agri-EPI, oversees all Satellite Farm Network activity.

Things to consider – recruitment in Agritech

Sam Clayton, Managing Director and Recruiter at AgRecruit shares his views on recruitment in agritech

Running an AgriTech specific recruitment business means that I spend my time working with companies in the AgriFood domain when it comes to recruiting for roles that are non-traditional for the sector. This sees me working on roles in Software Engineering, AI & Robotics, Data and various Engineering disciplines, as well as commercially oriented roles focused on a tech service.

For start-ups, or perhaps more established entities delving into the tech market for the first time, recruitment can mean stepping outside of the Agri world and into a wild-west where you’ll be fighting tooth and nail for the in-demand talent you need, against companies across the likes of Banking, Retail, Energy, Healthcare and any other sector you can think of.

This post focuses on elements that need consideration before you even dip your toe into the water and start engaging with candidates. Some may seem obvious, but hopefully there’ll be one or two you hadn’t thought of which will help you on your way…

Does what you’re looking for exist?

You may have 3-4 business needs that require addressing, varying from Sales through to Software Development – but, if you’re expecting one miracle worker to solve all of these, you might have to think again. With the odd exception, generally people will specialise in one discipline; so you need to decide which of these is the most pressing, or work out if you can recruit for more than one post.

How challenging is the role to fill?

You’ve decided that your requirements are feasible and it’s all systems go. Will it be straightforward though? Software Engineers and Data Scientists, for example, are established role types – but are still notoriously hard to find and attract. Are you looking for a skillset that is abundantly available, or is this a highly specialist role that could prove challenging?

Can you make life easier for yourself?

If, based on the above point, you’ve deduced that this could be challenging, can you take measures to open up the pool of viable candidates? Some flexibility on aspects such as remote working or the role requirements (could elements be learned on the job?) can significantly facilitate your journey.

In agritech recruitment, what do you have to offer?

What is standout or unique about you and your proposition that will be enough to not only convince somebody that the upheaval of changing jobs is worthwhile, but also that you should be their first choice versus the other parties vying for their attention? How are you making your ‘USPs’ (Unique Selling Points) apparent to candidates?

Do you have an interview & selection plan?

What type of interview(s) do you want to carry out and across how many stages? Are all decision makers agreed on what is needed and reading from the same hymn-sheet? Will your process give people a chance? Of course, the barrier for entry can’t be set too low… but, on the other hand, a process that is overly arduous or drawn out may result in great candidates being ruled out for minor imperfections or becoming disengaged.

Do you have the time?

You doubtless have other tasks and responsibilities that require attention; do you have the time to make this a priority right now? Can you review CVs in good time? Do you have time to vet candidates on the basics (e.g. salary expectations, are they serious about looking or just ‘window shopping’, etc) before committing to interview? Are you and all other decisions makers available to move through the interview process at sufficient rapidity?

Will you need help?

If you’ve exhausted your own network and your job ad isn’t yielding results, you may need to enlist help and look at going down the Recruitment Agency route. It will need to be a sufficiently attractive proposition for an agency to invest time & resources into. Surprisingly to many, the fee % you’re willing to pay is not the most important thing here; experienced Recruiters are more likely to prioritise the prospect of a healthy working relationship and partnership. To aid this, consider whether you’d be happy to work with one agency exclusively, or will there likely be further assignments to come should they deliver for you?

All the above points could lead to a blog post on their own, but hopefully this is enough to help make your life easier and start to maximise your chances of success. We are passionate about building further relationships in the AgriTech space and lending a helping hand where possible to growing companies in this domain, so will always be happy to provide advice and guidance for free on the topics mentioned here. Happy hunting!

Contact Sam Clayton at AgRecruit for help on anything covered in this post, or any other recruitment related enquiries:
(+44) 01908 035950
sam.clayton@agrecruit-ltd.com

Ticking the patent box – can patents reduce your tax bill?

The UK patent box is a tax relief designed to encourage R&D to start and stay in the UK. It offers a reduction in corporation tax on the profits derived from patented products and processes. Corporation tax can be reduced to 10% on these profits, although as with all things tax related, it’s not that simple.

How patent box works

The calculation can be quite complex, but the headlines are:

  • You need to own or exclusively licence a granted patent;
  • Your company must have undertaken qualifying development, and made a significant contribution to the creation of the invention or to a product containing the invention.

The patent box claim can be made any time, and can be claimed up to 2 years after the end of the relevant financial year.

The key thing to understand is that the patent must be granted. UK patents can take 3-4 years to be granted, and European patents longer. Therefore, if you plan to start selling the product earlier than this it creates a bit of a problem. No granted patent = no patent box tax relief.

Fortunately there are some strategies that can help.

Fast grant

Although the default option in the UK is 3-4 years, this is not the only option. There are various mechanisms available which can speed up the patent process. These are:

AgriTech blog - Vault IP image 1

  • Combining search and examination. Usually two stages of the process, these can be combined into one.
  • Requesting early publication. Patent applications are usually published at 18 months, and won’t be granted until a minimum of three months after publication. If we ask, the UKIPO will publish the application early, meaning that the three month period will be brought forward allowing for faster grant.
  • Requesting acceleration. We can ask the UKIPO to speed things up. A reason is required, and unfortunately ‘tax relief’ is not accepted! That said, a commercial reason such as ‘fear of infringers coming on the market’ or ‘grant would aid in licence negotiations’ are usually good enough.
  • Entering the green channel. This accelerated treatment is available to ‘green’ inventions. Therefore if the invention has environmental benefits, this route should be requested if it has not automatically been entered.

According to the UKIPO, these tricks can get you a granted patent in as little as 9 months.

The smart approach

Although fast grant sounds great, it does have some side effects. One is that often a pending application is a little more scary to would be infringers than a granted patent. The scope of a granted patent is set in stone. Therefore third parties know exactly what they need to do to ‘design around’ the patent and avoid infringement. Therefore fast grant is not always the best commercial decision.

Also, generally patents will get to grant faster if we accept narrower protection. To understand this, consider the difference between broad and narrow patents:

  • A broad patent covers the core product and as many variations of it as we can protect;
  • A narrow patent focuses on the core product alone. It may be easy to design around.

So the former is better commercially, but is not great for our fast grant strategy as it usually involves a bit more of a protracted examination. Also, keeping the application pending longer is usually more commercially desirable to keep would-be infringers guessing.

So what can we do?

Best of both worlds

The good news is that we can have both. It’s possible to have a fast, narrow patent for patent box and a slower, broader patent for better commercial protection. It uses a technique called ‘dividing’ the patent application or ‘filing a divisional’. This allows the patent application to be cloned. The original application can form the patent box patent, and the ‘divisional’ used to take things slower and pursue a broader patent:

AgriTech blog - Vault IP image 2

The economics – what do patents cost?

Ultimately most clients want to know (i) what they can save in tax and (ii) what the patent costs to get granted. Question (i) is for the accountants, but in terms of (ii) a fast, narrow UK patent for a mechanical type invention can cost as little as £3500 (ex VAT) from filing to grant. This is very much at the low end of the spectrum, and the average is probably more like £5000 – £6000 (ex VAT), but all the same it is easy to see how this cost can be easily offset by the tax relief. If the product lifespan is only 5 years (patents last way longer than this- up to 20 years from filing) then it only takes £700 to £1200 of tax saving a year for the patent costs to be covered.

Everything after that is on the bottom line.

Vault IP

Vault IP is a Midlands-based, boutique intellectual property law firm, created to be an antidote to the traditional IP practice. If you would like to understand more about the patents process or require assistance with any aspect of IP protection please drop Phil Sanger a note at phil@vault-ip.com or via any of the contact details below.

+44 (0) 121 296 9164

hello@vault-ip.com

www.vault-ip.com

Minimising waste with water sustainability

Water sustainability and agriculture

In recognition of water saving week, Agri-EPI Centre’s Membership and Events Manager, Annabelle Gardner, spoke with member Grant Leslie, Co-founder and Chief Operations Officer of SEM Energy, an environmentally conscious sustainability partner in waste and water effluent treatment.

SEM Energy Offices

SEM Energy Offices

What does your company do?

We are an environmentally conscious sustainability partner in waste and water effluent treatment. Our team of scientists, engineers and technologists pioneer leading-edge technologies that process co-products from ‘waste’ streams and deliver innovative water treatment solutions.

Our goal is to:

  • Reduce waste
  • Maximise solid matter capture
  • Save on haulage, storage and logistics costs
  • Increase efficiencies
  • Shrink the carbon footprint

What is your company vision?

A waste-free, circular economy in the future, securing our planet’s health and wealth for generations to come. We aim to minimise the impact of waste on the environment and, where possible, create value from its co-product waste streams and ensure compliance with discharge legislation.

Can you provide a case-study or example of the sustainable work you currently undertake in agriculture?

On-site conversion of agricultural animal slurry into organic horticulture products:

  • Aim – a reduction in slurry waste handling (Our client’s slurry production totalled 32,000 tonnes per annum.)
  • Method – using SEM technology to separate the liquid phase and de-water dry matter to create economically and socially valuable by-products
  • Results: water safe to discharge to local watercourse; solids (4% of total volume) used as fertiliser locally; 23% saving in handling, storage and transport costs.

We have been working with a client for the past year, applying our ever-evolving range of technologies and solutions to reduce the handling of slurry waste. Our aim is two-fold: effective separation of the liquid phase for treatment and re-use, and substantial de-watering of the dry matter to create an optimised, valuable by-product which can be re-purposed as livestock bedding, biofuel, fertiliser or growth media.

We implemented our patented MDM technology, which mechanically removes the liquid phase from slurries. It’s so effective that it also captures micro-solids as small as colloidal particles.

We integrated this with our I-DAF unit. An intelligent and autonomous upgrade to most DAF systems on the market today, it’s designed to maximise the removal of: total suspended solids (TSS); biochemical oxygen demand (BOD); chemical oxygen demand (COD) and heavy metals.

Sticking to our environmental guns, we used plant-based coagulant, flocculant and pH correction products that are automatically dosed, based on built in instrumentation readings. This ensured both homogenous, reliable performance and minimal chemical usage. The biodegradable formulations minimise environmental impact, whichever sludge disposal route chosen.

In order to ensure maximum nutrient capture and transfer from the liquid phase into the solids, we used another patented technology of ours – DRAM Filtration – to remove nutrients and heavy metals. DRAM utilises an organic matrix, over 99% of which is comprised of an existing and sustainable, agriculturally produced, grain-based, waste co-product from alcohol distillation.

The filtration process works through sorption, and readily sorbs ammonium nitrate and phosphorous. Combined with an additional proprietary reagent (DRAM+) which provides potassium, these form the essential fertilising elements.

Can you give an example of one of your technologies that focuses on water saving and water sustainability?

H2OPE – our flagship product for the agricultural market:

  • Removes volatile contaminants and de-waters
  • Optimises valuable ingrained nutrients
  • Remaining solid matter can be pelletised for use as fertiliser or as a nutritionally balanced growth media

The environmental benefits:

  • Reduction in application of nutrient rich liquids to agricultural land
  • Decrease in diffuse pollution of waterways due to agricultural run-off
  • Reduced carbon impact due to reduction in transport of slurries off-site
  • Significant reduction in the carbon generated by the manufacture of fertiliser

The social benefits:

  • Fewer greenhouse gases
  • Effluents can be treated on-site
  • Economic savings, as one of the by-products is steam, which can be used for on-site energy generation and distilled water.
  • Less odour emissions

Can you describe the significance of water sustainability in the agricultural industry?

Our goal is always to clean water well enough for re-use and re-purpose at source, whether that is for washdown water or perhaps irrigation. An absolute must for us, this aligns not only with our aims, but those of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Goals.

The sector has been, and will continue to be, paramount to the global economy. By protecting our ecosystems from potentially harmful co-products, we are sustaining not just the agriculture industry, but also the evolution of a circular economy.

Solutions to nutritional challenges of dairy calf rearing

Optimising lifelong productivity

Calf Research has shown that the way a dairy calf is cared for in its early life stages can have major and long-lasting effects on the lifetime trajectory of that animal. This has significance not just at the farm level, but throughout the industry, where issues such as animal welfare, animal diseases and food safety can have substantial consequences.

Improvements in calf rearing will play a crucial role in the future sustainability of British dairy produce. Many problems exist in current calf rearing systems which threaten to restrict the sustainable development of dairy cattle in the UK. When managed incorrectly, dairy calves are susceptible to a range of health and welfare issues associated with inappropriate nutrition and weaning that can have long term impacts on the lifetime productivity of that animal in the dairy herd.

Calf Research & Innovation Facility

Agri-EPI has made substantial investments in the Calf Research & Innovation Facility, a joint venture with SRUC to facilitate the measurement and management of key elements in calf rearing to optimise lifelong productivity. Colostrum management is the foundation of successful calf rearing. Colostrum contains high concentrations of protective antibodies to support a calf’s immunity, as well as a range of other constituents which are crucial to calf growth and development. Factors such as quality and amount of colostrum, as well as the timescale over which colostrum is delivered can all impact the future health status of an animal.

Getting right the energy and nutrient requirements of each individual animal goes far beyond colostrum. Dry feed, forages and water, as well as supplements and milk replacers also make up significant areas of the calf’s diet and all impact on animal health. Recent research findings suggest that the gut microbiome of the dairy calf is the key opportunity to improve early life gut health.

In partnership with you

The overarching aim of Agri-EPI’s dairy work is to develop and trial precision technology and techniques which support sustainable and productive UK milk production. Under an imminent Agricultural Policy reform, British dairy farmers will be required to constantly adapt, innovate and invest to ensure security for the future of the industry.

Agri-EPI’s Calf Research Facility, at SRUC’s Crichton Royal Dairy Farm in Dumfries, allows the daily monitoring of a calf’s consumption of milk, water, forage and concentrates, and its weight gain. Weigh cells in individual feeders record each calf’s intake every time they eat or drink. The data gathered by the units within the facility can be combined with data from ‘animal-mounted’ sensors, such as anklets recording an animal’s activity levels. The result is a comprehensive picture of an animal’s health and development, and how changes to intakes may influence these factors longer-term. The facility also creates opportunities for longer-term research into how different nutritional strategies may influence an animal’s lifetime health and productivity. For example, by considering how different milk formulations may impact on an animal’s growth and productivity.

Agri-EPI and SRUC are keen to partner with individual farmers, calf feed manufacturers, dairy cooperatives, processors, retailers and the wider supply chain to undertake research and trials to develop the latest technologies and techniques in calf rearing.

Example areas for research and trialling at the facility include:

  • Feed trials
  • Microbiome
  • Growth performance
  • Nutrient digestibility
  • Blood biochemical indices
  • Rumen development

For more information about our Calf Research Facility at SRUC Crichton Royal or to discuss a project/trial idea, please contact Kasi McReddie, Agr-EPI Centre Business Development Manager – Livestock.