Memorandum submitted by the Silsoe Research
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
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