Sustainability

Crucial to the our health and that of our planet, sustainability of farming and land management is central to modern farming methods.

Here at Agri-EPI we explore and deliver precision farming engineering, technology and innovation in UK agriculture across soil, crops and livestock. Working with our partners and collaborators, we know sustainability must be at the heart of everything we do as we develop novel technology to improve and increase yields, preserve habitats and feed our population.

Agri-EPI and Hands Free Farm announce robotic safety hackathon

While the advancement of autonomous farm vehicles offers clear economic and environmental benefits, its future growth also presents the new challenge of ensuring unmanned machines pose no risk to farmers, and the public crossing their land.

During Farm Safety Week (19-23 July 2021) Agri-EPI Centre and the award-winning Hands Free Farm (HFF) project have announced they will hold a hackathon to identify new solutions for robotic farming safety.

As experts in the development of autonomous farm machinery, the HFF team will integrate and evaluate the winning solution at their Midlands plot.

The event is open to any company or individual from any background.

Registration will open on 30 July on the Agri-EPI website.

 

Agri-EPI’s Business Development Director, Lisa Williams, said: “The benefits of autonomous farm machinery are many but as it becomes more commonplace in the future, and while more and more people recognise the mental health benefits of walking outdoors, it’s essential that farm automation poses no threat to the public.

“We’re excited to have Hands Free Farm on board to help us devise the hackathon and look forward to seeing the participants come up with some really innovative ideas.”

Innovate UK-funded HFF is led by Precision Decisions, with partners Farmscan Ag, Harper Adams University and Agri-EPI Centre.  It builds on an earlier project, Hands Free Hectare, in which a hectare of cereal crop was grown without any human entering the hectare of land.

Clive Blacker Clive, Director of lead partner Precision Decisions, said:

“One of the challenges of our project is that, like many typical farms, our 35ha plot includes footpaths and roads with public access.  Safety and security of the operation of autonomous machinery is of paramount importance. Addressing this issue will be critical to implementing autonomous machinery and devices in real-world commercial farming settings in the future, and gaining regulatory, market and public acceptance of the technology. We are very excited to be working with Agri-EPI to develop a robotic safety hackathon and cannot wait to see what new thinking and imagination can be applied to agriculture from any background.”

UK agri-tech experts and growers join forces on salad-saving robot

A robotics solution to horticultural labour shortages is being developed to help secure the availability of the UK’s favourite salad veg – the lettuce. 

Agri-tech and machinery experts at Grimme, Agri-EPI Centre, Image Development Systems, Harper Adams University and The Centre for Machine Vision at the University of the West of England, Bristol have joined forces with two of the UK’s largest lettuce growers, G’s Fresh and PDM Produce, in the new Innovate UK-funded project to develop a robotic solution to automate lettuce harvesting. 

Whole head, or iceberg, lettuce is the UK’s most valuable field vegetable crop. Around 99,000 tonnes were harvested in the UK in 2019i with a market value of £178 million. But access to reliable seasonal labour has been an increasing problem, exacerbated by Brexit and Covid 19 restrictions. Early indications are that a commercial robotic solution could reduce lettuce harvesting labour requirements by around 50%. 

Thom Graham, Vegetable Specialist at lead projects partner Grimme said: “One of the greatest challenges facing the horticulture sector is sourcing sufficient seasonal labour to conduct their harvest commitments in a timely manner. In addition, rising cost of labour with no increase in retail price has squeezed margins. Growers are looking at solutions that can reduce labour input costs and maintain their resilience in the sector and we hope our expertise can help.” 

Dermot Tobin, Managing Director of Farming at PDM said: “For many decades our business has relied on seasonal labour for harvesting lettuce. Nearly all the lettuce you see on UK supermarket shelves is cut by hand. Sourcing labour is getting really challenging and with wage inflation rising far quicker than return to grower prices margins are really tight. Our industry needs to embrace robotic technology to reduce our reliance on labour so being involved in this project is of the utmost importance to our business.” 

Richard Ellis, Innovation & Research Project Manager of G’s subsidiary Salad Harvesting Services Ltd. said: “The process of lettuce harvesting has continuously evolved over the past 30 years, with harvest, packing, date coding, boxing and palletising all completed in the field, within minutes of the crop being cut. The cutting process of an iceberg is the most technically complicated step in the process to automate. We are encouraged to be involved and see the results of this project which offers the potential to reduce reliance on seasonal labour.”   

The project will adapt existing leek harvesting machinery to lift the lettuce clear from the ground and grip it in between pinch belts. The lettuce’s outer, or ‘wrapper’, leaves will be mechanically removed to expose the stem. Machine vision will then identify a precise cut point on the stem to separate lettuce head from stem.  

A prototype robotic harvester will be developed for field trials in England towards the end of the 2021 UK season, in around September, then at G’s Espana.  

Lettuce is also a valuable crop in Europe and the US. 123,000ha of lettuce and chicory was grown in the EU in 2018ii with similar areas in the US. These areas have similar issues of access to seasonal labour, offering a significant potential market for the lettuce robot. 

World Water Day 2021: Agritech solutions for better resource management

The 22nd March is World Water Day, an observance day established by the United Nations to highlight the importance of fresh water and raise awareness of the millions of people around the world who still don’t have access to the crucial resource.

World Water Day was established in 1993 to bring greater attention to water scarcity, water pollution, sanitation, water supply and climate change, with each annual event centring on themes from improving hygiene to sustainability.

Events take place around the world to celebrate the day, including fundraising events, campaign launches, volunteering opportunities and discussion in both the real and digital world on key water issues.

World Water Day 2021

Taking place largely online, World Water Day 2021 is focused on ‘Valuing Water’, with activities designed to support the achieved of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Water and Sanitation for all by 2030.

Whether it’s household or industrial use, water is integral to how we live, eat and work, with wider impacts on education, health and economics. Safeguarding this essential – and crucially, finite – resource is at the heart of World Water Day 2021, as climate change and peak population levels put global water supply under more pressure than ever before.

Sustainable and Equitable water resource management is of particular importance to the agriculture sector, and the UN World Water Development Report 2021 underlines just how often water is overlooked.

Working with agri-tech partners for greater sustainability

Agri-EPI Centre works with a range of aquaculture and agritech specialists, supporting farmers, academic institutions and a range of other partners to improve the sustainability, efficiency and productivity of water use in agriculture. this World Water Day, we’re celebrating the incredible work agri-tech companies are doing to preserve precious water supplies and benefit the entire planet.

ALVÁTECH 

ALVÁTECH is a leading supplier of affordable technology that enables farmers to use water with higher salinity for irrigation and livestock, so they can save fresh water and improve crop growth. Currently operating in 11 countries around the world, ALVÁTECH’s EMF Active Water System is at the forefront of improving water management in agriculture.

Aqua Innovation Ltd

Developing innovative solutions for the salmon farming industry, Aqua Innovation Ltd. support aquaculture farmers to create the best environments for fish farming, through projects such as the SeaCAP 6000. From fish welfare to waste management and regulatory issues, the work of Aqua Innovation Ltd is driving growth of the aquaculture sector.

Aquapulse

Aquapulse’s natural, non-chemical water technology for the agriculture, fish farming and horticulture sectors, delivering environmental benefits as well as improving sustainability, hygiene and greater profit margins. Naturally cleaner water systems mean healthier animals and crops, and better quality produce such as dairy , fruit and vegetables.

Oxi-Tech Solutions

Emerging UK tech company Oxi-Tech Solutions is currently commercialising a game-changing water disinfection system set to improve animal hygiene and water quality for a range of sectors. Their development of the most powerful oxidant in use today, Dissolved Ozone, removes chemicals and plastics found in water, eliminating the need for chlorine for dairy farmers.

SEM World

Hugely relevant to the 2021 World Water Day theme of ‘Valuing Water’, SEM Energy Ltd works to recycle waste into new products and contribute to a circular, waste-free economy. From meter installations to rust removal, SEM’s solutions usue the latest technology for outstanding results.

Agriculture and World Water Day

Both now and in the future, agri-tech will be key to better management of water resources; from improving crop productivity relative to their water consumption to crop resilience to flooding and drought. Real-time monitoring of crop, soil and weather data can ensure optimal use of water, while biotechnology will enable farmers to produce more with less water.

To find out more about World Water Day and UN-led events you can get involved with, visit the UN Water page. To discover our network (or join it!), you can see our full list of network members and see how agri-tech is transforming agriculture through our projects.

Cover crops: the route to sustainable farming?

Given the increasing focus on soil health, erosion, and pollution, as a result of current agricultural practice, cover cropping is now being used across all sectors of crop production to save nitrogen and agrochemical inputs, increase yields and boost soil sustainability. Is cover cropping the route to sustainable farming? Agri-EPI Business Development Manager Duncan Ross dives into the topic for us highlighting the benefits to farmers to embrace a cover crop farm strategy:

Cover cropping means different things to different people, and the reasons for adoption of cover crops into a farming regime are very diverse and often specific to a particular farm. The transition from Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as a support mechanism for agriculture to one based on environment and soil management (DEFRA’s Agricultural Transition Plan) will no doubt encourage wider uptake of cover crops.

Cover crops are often referred to as over-wintered, fast growing annuals planted between two cash crops. However, in certain circumstances a cover crop could be considered to cover a complete 12-month cycle due to geographical location, or a short-term grass ley.

The benefits can be many, such as:

  • Increasing levels of soil organic matter, as green manure is incorporated into the soil. increasing biological activity and water retention capacity.
  • Capture of vital nutrients that are made available to the subsequent cash crops rather than lost due to leaching.
  • Improve soil structure as vigorous root activity can be used to break up compaction.
  • Reduce pollution of nutrient and pesticides into water courses and erosion of soil.
  • Habitat creation which can be included in agri-environment schemes to generate additional revenue and can improve pest management by encouraging beneficial insects.

Healthier cropping sequences on the farm

Financially, it may be difficult to quantify the benefit, as any potential reduction of inputs or increase in yield of the following crops are offset by the cost of establishment and destruction of the cover crop. Cover crops, though, should be treated as an integral part of the rotation and good establishment is imperative, drill rather than broadcast, small nitrogen and slug pellet applications will result in a higher level of biomass, more nutrients being captured, more root activity, less pollution/erosion.

Which cover crop should I use?

The correct choice of cover crop will vary from farm to farm and will be dependent on many variables such as: what is trying to be achieved? Things to consider would be:

  • Soil type
  • Geographical location – less likely to get good autumn establishment in Northern parts of the UK.
  • Rotation – not using brassicas in a rotation containing OSR
  • Sowing dates – sooner after harvest of previous cash crop as practical to maximise biomass potential
  • Following plant timings – not to compromise future cash crop
  • Previous herbicide usage – residual herbicide could affect cover crop

Farm Business strategy

Seeking expert agronomic advice is key in making the correct decisions on cover crop strategy and type of seed to be included within the mix. For example, if the aim is the long-term management of arable weeds, where there are fewer active ingredients available, and herbicide resistance is to be considered, the weed challenge must be managed across the whole rotation. The cover crop chosen should be established and then destroyed along with the target weeds before it is able to re-seed, and over time the seed bank can be reduced. This method would rely on use of glyphosate as a control method so as not to disturb the soil as deep cultivation would mix the soil profile and reduce the effectiveness of the strategy.

Putting this into practice, some growers are having success with crimper rollers to destroy the cover crop and do away with the use of chemical control and should glyphosate be banned this may be the best option for conventional no-till farmers.

Radical Bubble Technology for Agricultural and Environmental Sustainability

Exciting possibilities for more profitable, sustainable and productive farming are being offered by the emerging technology ‘ultra-fine bubbles’ (UFBs). The technology is being explored in a £250,000 Innovate UK-funded project, led by MagGrow UK in association with Agri-EPI Centre and the Centre for Crop Health and Protection (CHAP).

UFB Technology

UFBs, also known as nanobubbles, are tiny, very stable and long-lasting bubbles, 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair, or about the size of a virus. Unseen by the naked eye, even when present in large numbers in water-based liquids, they do not rise to the surface and burst, but remain stable and buoyant for long periods of time, typically days and weeks.

The bubbles can carry gases, and substances of different kinds on their surfaces. Their stability and longevity offer great potential in agriculture for environmentally friendly spraying and irrigation, along with other applications that help address food security and environmental problems.

The use of UFBs containing ozone is already established in medical and industrial disinfection processes to kill bacteria and destroy viruses. UFBs are also used in oil, gas, and mineral extraction processes; pharmaceutical processes; food-flavouring; the production of cosmetic fragrancies; and in wastewater treatment.

While the technology is already generating huge market value in these sectors, its use in agriculture is still in its infancy. The purpose of the new project is to explore the potential for agricultural applications and integration with other technologies to provide innovative, environmentally friendly solutions for sustainable food security.

Project partners

 
Agri-EPI
CHAP
MagGrow

The project will initially focus on irrigation for delivery of the UFBs. Using Agri-EPI and CHAP’s shared soil and crop technology facilities alongside soil science expertise at Cranfield University, the project will compare the growth of plants treated with oxygen-containing UFB-water, with that of plants given untreated water. The aim of the study is to determine the effect on root development, nutrient absorption, growth and overall crop yield.

Farming application

The project team believes UFBs potentially have a host of additional applications in farming, including supporting a reduction the quantity of chemical inputs required when spraying and irrigating crops to control pests and diseases.

Dr Anthony Furness, MagGrow’s Chief Scientific Officer, said:

“From time-to-time a technology comes along that offers potential for revolutionary change and disruptive economic benefit, such as CDs and smart-phones. We believe that UFB technology has similar transformative potential for agriculture. The versatility of UFB technology, and recent advances in UFB research which have further validated its significance, suggesting too that there is huge potential for their use in advancing spraying and irrigation processes.

“Not only will this help serve to address global food security challenges and the question of how farming can be more sustainable, productive and profitable, it also offers huge potential for new enterprises and job creation across the UK.”

CHAP Innovation Hub Lead, Richard Glass, said:

“Using the unique Phenotyping and Soil Health facility, CHAP, supported by key soil experts from its partner Cranfield University, will assess and explore the application of this innovative technology and its potential role in transforming UK crop production.”

Agri-EPI’s Chief Technical Officer, Dr Shamal Mohammed, said:

“We’re excited to be contributing our expertise and capabilities in plant phenotyping – the ability to measure the structure and function of plants – to this project. UFBs offer great potential within agriculture and our research will allow us to greatly progress knowledge and understanding of useful UFBs treatments.”

Measuring soil flux as a way to understand GHG emissions from soil

Meeting the challenge of climate change with soil flux analysis

For growers, agri-chemical companies, producers and food retailers monitoring and measuring positive and negative soil flux can help balance greater productivity, sustainability and improved soil health. What is soil flux analysis and what impact does it have on climate change?

Driving net zero reduction

Global Green House Gas emissions are a sensitive topic politically with international agreements of targets and the drive to a net zero status, but there is a debate going on also about who is the most culpable.

GHG emissions - IPCC 2014 | Soil Flux Analysis | Agri-EPI blog | Soil and Crop Technology Solutions

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is by far the highest proportion of GHG emissions at around 75%, but Methane (CH4) and Nitrogen Oxide (N2O), although less in proportion, are respectively 28 times and 310 times more potent than CO2. Most of these emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels for energy production, transportation, manufacturing and building but land use also plays a significant part.

In 1973, the National Soil Inventory (England and Wales) was set to obtain an unbiased estimate of soils, and their carbon content. Since the original survey, further sampling has shown that in most soil types, there has been a progressive decline in carbon content, and the inference is that other temperate regions would show similar traits.

Losses due to land use activity

Inefficient use of fertilisers results in N2O being last as emissions to the atmosphere, and nitrates being leached through the soil into water courses. By targeting applications more effectively to ensure the crop is only given what it can utilise we are able to reduce these losses. Using variable rate applications, or slow release Urea are examples of how land managers are changing behaviour.

Storage and application of slurry and manure also result in emissions. Covered stores, better timing of applications and use of dribble bars and direct injection of slurry rather than splash plates can all contribute.

Rumination results in emissions of CH4 which give cattle and sheep a particularly bad image. This is more a factor in international production than UK, where many animals graze pasture unsuitable for crop production, and that permanent grassland can also be considered a net carbon sink.

Deforestation for agriculture, although not an issue in the UK, but certainly in other parts of the globe for production of soya and palm oil amongst other commodities has a significant impact. We not only lose the of that forest to act as a carbon sink, but the felled and cleared timber both emits CO2 and subjects the cleared areas to the potential of erosion.

Cultivations result in emissions from varied sources, the tractor exhaust (combatted in recent years by addition of EGR and AdBlu technology). The soil surface, as each cultivation releases naturally occurring gases into the lower atmosphere (minimum tillage and direct drilling have had some impact by reducing the amount of soil disturbance)

Natural ecological processes in the soil sub-surface produce and consume gases, and as the soils warm due to climate change, microbial metabolic rates increase resulting in increased CO2 emissions. Gases diffused from the soil surface into the lower atmosphere is known as positive flux, and gases absorbed into the soil is known as negative flux, the balance between the two will determine whether soils are a net source, or a net sink of GHG.

Soil Flux chambers

To calculate this, we need to collect accurate data on soil respiration rates, which can be done by using soil flux chambers. There are several different manufacturers of soil flux chambers, but they can be separated into two main categories.

  1. Closed chambers where the gases accumulate in the headspace and are sampled by syringe and stored for laboratory processing and analysis.
    • PP Systems CPY-5 Canopy Assimilation Chamber (#1)
  2. Automated chambers which can provide a timely method of sampling, as when coupled with a multiplexer and an analyser, up to 12 chambers can be linked in series and be deployed over a long period to sample and analyse in the field (subject to a reliable power supply)
    • Eosense eosAC Automated Chamber (#2)
    • Eosense Multiplexer (#3)
    • Picarro G2508 for analysis of CO2, CH4, N2O, NH3, H2O (#4)
    • Picarro G2201-i for analysis of CO2, CH4 and their C13 isotopes (#5)

 

Soil Flux Analysis | Agri-EPI blog | Soil and Crop Technology Solutions

 

All of the above equipment is designed to be used in the laboratory or the field (subject to a satisfactory and reliable electricity supply). The Picarro G2201-i (#5) is particularly useful for academic research applications, as it is more robust and user friendly than typical mass spectrometry methods (McCloskey et al 2020).

Strawberry gas flux measurement research

The time saving that can be achieved by automated chamber equipment deployed in a field experiment is demonstrated by Pamona College, California when monitoring soil flux in a commercial strawberry crop. The time in the field and the interpretation was the same using both systems, but the processing of the data represented a huge time saving for the trial, reducing the days from 68 down to 1.

Monitoring soil flux in Pamona College in California | Soil Flux Analysis | Agri-EPI blog | Soil and Crop Technology Solutions

Soil commercial and research enquiries

For further information on this equipment and the possibilities of incorporating into commercial or research studies with the Soil Flux 360 solution, please contact Duncan Ross, Business Development Manager Crops at Duncan.ross@agri-epicentre.com or fill out our online contact form.