Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Silsoe Research Institute (A12)

  Over the last 50 years, agriculture has changed radically as a result of technological innovation. It is likely that engineering and technology will have an equally important part to play in shaping agriculture over the next 50 years.

  Economic sustainability in agriculture will be achieved by reducing costs per unit of production, either by increasing production or by reducing costs. Increases in production may be achieved by increasing yields or reducing losses (from harvest, storage or the growing medium), and cost reductions by reducing inputs or the fixed costs of labour and machinery. Inputs may be reduced by better targeting (in time or space) and by better management, whilst fixed costs may be reduced by eliminating unnecessary work, increased throughout, better spread of workload and more economic farm sizes. Engineering solutions may be applied to many of these issues.


  A typical productivity figure is 200 ha/man. Increases in productivity may be achieved by larger farming units but this would necessitate increased operating speeds, with the associated need for automation of control, better systems, eg combine harvester headers, different systems, eg ploughing without a draft force, or automation, eg one person operating three tractors. The potential for saving through increased size is probably of the order of 100-200 £/ha.

  Furthermore, larger farming units would need technical systems to assist precise input management. Examples of such systems would be:

    —  Better targeting of nitrogen applications which can save 100kg N/ha compared with fertiliser company recommendations. Versus optimum rates, typically there would be a 2 per cent yield increase and 25 kg N/ha saving.

    —  Technology to target fungicide applications so that chemicals are applied to the leaf and not wasted on the soil, and to increase the window for application.

    —  Decision support for fungicide applications could bring large savings depending on year and variety.

    —  Herbicides for problems such as blackgrass and wild oats could cost an additional £40/ha; in-field, variable rate herbicide application could save around £20/ha where such problems exist. A robot that went roguing for wild oats would probably be a big saving.


  Again, increases in size are needed to reduce labour costs, and technology will then be required to assist management eg automatic milking systems, systems to identify health problems.

  There is also scope for better targeting of feed to the individual animal (eg integrated management systems for housed chickens).


  In horticulture and glasshouses, again the biggest scope for savings is labour and scale, with the associated technology implications.


  Sustaining profitable land use and the rural communities it supports will not be achieved by reverting to historical production methods. It is vital that new technologies are encouraged and adopted that allow costs to be reduced, so that agriculture in the UK can have more scope to compete in the world market place.

Silsoe Research Institute

13 December 2001

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