Precision Technologies – Environmental benefits?

by Dr David Cutress, Farming Connect Knowledge Exchange Hub, IBERS, Aberystwyth University

the farming sector is becoming increasingly pushed to consider the environmental impacts that its practices are having both locally and globally. Agriculture and other land-use factors, including forestry, account for up to a quarter of all human- related greenhouse gas emissions globally, with a tenth of all emissions being agricultural in the UK.

As such, discussion and policy changes are occurring surrounding this topic, with the recent agriculture bill stating the availability of financial assistance for improving/protecting and facilitating public understanding and enjoyment of the environment.

there are several agricultural
climate mitigation strategies
with potential, including; mixed species swards, organic farming and agroforestry to name just a few. One interesting, and already rapidly developing area, which could benefit direct and indirect emissions, involves using precision technologies within farming systems. Currently, systems such as variable-rate application for crops and robotic milking or feeding for livestock are well utilised, providing quantifiable productivity and efficiency benefits.

improving productivity and efficiency inherently mitigates environmental impacts when considering emissions per product output, however, many of these systems are noted to have further potential in mitigation.

Variable-rate application (current UK uptake is only 21%) can directly reduce nitrogen added to pastures leading to reduced nitrous oxide emissions, which per molecule are the highest

impacting emission within agriculture. Machine guidance/auto-steering systems allow more controlled pass over of fields, reducing fuel consumption emissions directly and reducing soil compaction, where healthier soils require less fertiliser and produce less nitrous oxide.

tasks which required heavy machinery are being optimised for robots or aerial drones which utilise electricity as a power source, with higher energy- efficiency and potential for energy provided being renewable.

Controlled environment farming in livestock increases energy use and, therefore, emissions due to controlling for temperature, ventilation etc. however,

integration of precision systems can allow real-time monitoring of emissions, improving the ability to determine which automation or management practices reduce these most efficiently.

Furthermore, precision feeding and oestrus and lameness detecting systems have all demonstrated potential in reducing emissions, with up to 20% reductions per herd suggested in certain studies.

technologies could offer a way forward in future. Whether policy changes and financial incentives will prove sufficient to overcome barriers to the previous adoption in the UK (including ‘ease of use’, demonstrable cost-efficiency, initial equity requirement and lack of specific skills) is yet to be seen. however, informing farmers of the potential benefits technologies could have is vital.

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