ADAS sees a new role for precision farmers in agricultural science

By Kathrine Hauge Madsen and Bodil Pedersen, SEGES.

At ADAS (previously the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service) we met with Head of Crop Performance Roger Sylvester-Bradley and Senior Research Scientist Daniel Kindred in Boxworth near Cambridge on 30th May 2017. R. Sylvester-Bradley is well-known in Denmark for his work within the Yield-Enhancement-Network. Dan Kindred has a background in nutrient research and has for the past seven years been heavily involved with research and innovation in precision farming through the Auto-N-project.

History of ADAS and funding in the UK

When Roger Sylvester-Bradley started out as a young scientist in ADAS the organization was state funded and had approx. 5000 employees. In 1997 ADAS was privatized and now has 500 employees of which 100-250 are working in agriculture. As Roger Sylvester-Bradley explains, “British agriculture accounts for less than 1% of the GNP and is therefore under the radar of most politicians”. ADAS now works as a research and consultancy business on contracts for companies and innovative projects funded by AHDB or Innovate.

New role for precision farmers in agricultural science

As R. Sylvester-Bradley explains, “development and innovation in agriculture can now be performed as a joint operation between farmers and scientists”, meaning that the traditional way of thinking that the scientist provides new technologies and solutions, which is then taken up by the farmer, is to some extent reversed by precision farming. As R. Sylvester-Bradley further explains “the best farmers are better at farming than researchers, and they also have good ideas. Best practice is individual to the farmer therefore the farmer should ideally develop and test his own practices based on his own ideas. Digitization now allows for this much more “bottom-up way of working” to achieve innovation in this way. But “Farmers’ ideas still need to be tested by the scientist before they are implemented at large scale.

 

Dan Kindred (left) and Roger Sylvester-Bradley (right) are working with precision farmers to help them test their own ideas and innovations.

The two ADAS scientists and farmer James Robinson at Measures Farm in Cambridgeshire inspect a field trial with P-fertilizer.

 

Even with precision farming applied we still see large yield variations in the field

One of Daniel Kindred’s observations from his different projects on precision agriculture is that we still can’t explain the variations in yield response, “even when the N-supply etc. is accounted for, we still see 3-4 t per hectare of variation, so getting the N-supply right does little to improve uniformity.” So “what is really explaining the variation?” Dan Kindred considers that we have been overplaying the effect on yield of variable rate application of nitrogen-fertilizer. One of the learnings from the so-called ‘LearN’ Project (where 15 farmers conducted tramline trials with different levels of N-fertilizer) was that it was most important to adjust the average N-supply for the whole field, before adjusting N within the field.

Monitor farms

Monitor farms have recently been initiated by AHDB, based on the idea that farmers can best help each other. The original idea stems from New Zealand. For the past three years farmers, who have applied to become a monitor farm, engage in meetings arranged by regional technical officers about different topics. The whole idea is a bottom-up process rather than the conventional thinking of science providing knowledge for farmers. This has led to a lot of collaboration between farmers and innovative ideas – the only downside is that there is little rationalization of emerging messages from agronomists or scientists.

AHDB: The work of AHDB is funded by British farmers, growers and others in the supply chain through statutory levies – not from central Government. The funds raised from each commodity sector are ring-fenced to ensure they are used only to the benefit of the sector from which they were raised. Read more about AHDB here.

Innovate UK: The UK’s innovation agency, an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. Projects are typically funded up to 50% from Innovate. Read more.