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Technology is something all forms of agriculture has embraced and, in the future, it will be key to increasing productivity, enhancing the biodiversity of our environment and, most importantly, giving farmers and crofters a fair return for what we provide.
It also has the potential to make farming and crofting on really extensive units easier to manage when there are fewer people who have the traditional skills required to help sustain such an important part of the agricultural economy.
It is now 10 years since we bought our GPS system for the tractor. It’s by no means an all-singing, all-dancing set-up – there is no autosteer – but for a hill and upland livestock producer the difference it has made is satisfyingly stark.
We purchased our GPS system when there was a land management option for precision farming as part of rural development measures whereby you received a 40 per cent grant. The total cost before grant was £1,600 and there have been many benefits.
Sowing fertiliser on bare ground that has been grazed by sheep or spreading on grass stubble for a second cut used to be challenging, particularly in dry weather when you struggled to see your previous mark. The GPS system allows you to see exactly where your previous run was and guides you to where you should be on the next run, eliminating overlap or underlap, and making fertiliser usage much more efficient.
Spraying was also time-consuming. We would always have markers out on the field and have to get off the tractor after every round to move the markers for the next round. This process was more difficult in uneven fields where you needed markers in the middle as well.
Now, I go around the field twice using the last pass option, set the line and continue across the field until finished. Much quicker, and more accurate and efficient.
Cutting silage or hay is also simpler.
And this year, we soil-mapped three fields – about 16ha. The results were very interesting, especially when it came to the pH of the soil. We took 18 samples in every half hectare, giving a more accurate result across the field, as opposed to the traditional ‘W’ method.
The next step was to engage a contractor with the technology and software in their tractor to spread lime only where it was required as the field pH information was linked through the software to the computer system for the spreader.
To the casual onlooker who didn’t know what was happening, you would think the spreader was knackered as watching it going up and down the field saw some bits get a heavy dose of lime while some had nothing. The reality is the system was levelling up the field and again making maximum use of the product.
The next technological step is one into the unknown whereby we want to look at the research being done into the possibilities of virtual fencing – something that could change hill farming radically.
The idea is that you plot a virtual boundary fence by GPS on an unfenced hill and, as livestock move closer to that boundary, they get a signal through an electronic chip or collar that will make it uncomfortable for them if they were to try to cross the boundary.
Taking this to its logical conclusion would be the ideal scenario whereby plotting an ever-reducing boundary that changed every half hour or so, you could go away for the weekend and come back on the Monday morning and all the sheep would be in the hill park ready to go.
Although that’s probably a long way off, there’s no doubt that things like this could be possible and affordable.