The use of information and data derived from the latest agricultural technology will help farmers achieve climate change targets, manage nutrients efficiently and meet expectations around animal welfare, attendees at an event in Cookstown last Thursday were told.
Organised by the Institute of Global Food Security, which is part of Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), speakers included Prof John Gilliland, the chair of the expert working group which produced a sustainable land management strategy for NI in 2016.
That report effectively laid the foundations for the world-leading £45m soil nutrient health scheme being rolled out across NI over the next four years, which aims to provide farmers with analysis of the nutrient status of their soils, as well as an estimate of carbon stocks.
During his presentation, Gilliland, who is also director of agriculture and sustainability at Devenish, explained the work done to measure carbon in trees and hedgerows at the company’s 185ha Dowth Hall farm in Co Meath in 2014.
Having been told two years earlier that such a measurement was not possible, Gilliland outlined how work to map the geology of Dowth Hall identified LiDAR (light detection and ranging) as a potential technology to measure above ground carbon. It uses the light from a laser fitted to the likes of a helicopter or low-flying aircraft to collect measurements.
“Dowth was the first farm in the world to measure carbon in trees and hedges,” said Gilliland. The work showed there was 3,880t of carbon stored above the ground, while subsequent soil analysis down to 30cm in 2017 put average soil carbon stocks at 2.1%.
Digital analysis of the LiDAR survey data also opened up the possibility of identifying overland flow of water during periods of heavy rainfall, and in particular, what fields were most at risk of run-off of key nutrients, especially phosphorus (P). Fields at Dowth were ranked on the basis of risk, and managed accordingly.
These principles formed the basis of three projects in 2017 and 2018 led by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) in the Colebrook, Strule and Upper Bann river water catchments. As well as detailed soil analysis, farmers in the catchments were issued with P runoff risk maps, which identified those fields where extra care was required when applying nutrients.
“My understanding is that for the first time in 60 years, P in the Upper Bann catchment was lower in 2021 than in the previous year.
If you get the information back to the farmer, you are educating them, you are empowering them to make better decisions. Information and data leads to behavioural change,” said Gilliland.
In 2020 the ARC Zero (Accelerating Ruminant Carbon to Zero) project was launched in NI. Led by John Gilliland, the aim for the seven farms in the project is to calculate an accurate net carbon position.
LiDAR was used to estimate carbon in trees and hedgerows, with soil testing done in 2021 to calculate carbon in soils.
That work has reinforced much of what has been learned at Dowth Hall, with the participating farmers sitting on thousands of tonnes of carbon (mostly in soil) and able to sequester significant amounts of carbon annually in their soils, trees and hedges.
The rollout of the soil nutrient health scheme, which also involves LiDAR being used to measure above-ground carbon and to identify overland flow of water to reduce the risk of P getting into lakes and rivers, has the potential to be game-changing for NI agriculture.
“If we do our job right we can put this carbon into our soils, our trees and our hedges. Farmers are on a journey – we are not the problem, we are the solution,” said Gilliland.
Despite all the progress around a soil scheme in NI, one issue identified in the sustainable land management strategy from 2016 that hasn’t progressed surrounds the use of “calendar dates” to dictate when fertiliser and slurry can be spread in NI.
The 2016 report pointed out that soil potentiometers are available which can measure soil moisture and temperature, and instead of a date in a calendar, this could be used to identify whether soil conditions are appropriate for the application of nutrients. Spreading fertiliser in optimal conditions will lower the risk of nitrous oxide losses (a potent greenhouse gas).
According to Gilliland, the technology is now potentially available to allow soil temperature and moisture to be measured remotely, but it needs to be taken forward by a commercial company.
Every five days the island of Ireland is sensed by a high-resolution satellite, and you can get that data for free by searching online for ‘EO browser’, said Conor Graham from QUB.
He said the information from the satellite has multiple potential uses, including to assess the normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) of plants in fields. Healthy plants strongly reflect near infrared light, but when a plant is stressed (lack of water, disease etc), it tends to absorb more of this light and have a NDVI score closer to zero.
“You can visualise stuff that your eyes cannot see. We can do it from space or from a multispectral camera on a drone,” said Graham.
He also said he has used the technology to quantify how much carbon is potentially released in an upland burn, with a 12-hour fire in the Mournes in 2020 putting an estimated 300t into the atmosphere.
“We can also do a fire prediction risk. When it is looking really dry we could do public outreach,” said Graham.
Researchers at QUB have received two rounds of international funding, amounting to over US$1m, to develop a vision-based system to monitor the welfare of broiler chickens.
Additional support has also been provided by Moy Park for the camera-based technology (called FlockFocus), which is able to track individual behaviour patterns in broiler houses and gather information on traits linked to the welfare of the birds.
“Are birds as active as they should be, or resting as they should be? Activity is important for bird welfare,” said Professor Niamh O’Connell.
She added that the technology can also predict the weight of birds to a high level of accuracy, which would allow growth rates to be measured and help decide when the flock should be thinned or all the birds slaughtered.
With around one-quarter of cows on dairy farms experiencing some degree of lameness, early identification of a problem is important if the issue is to be kept under control.
A potential solution has been devised by Belfast-based technology company Cattle Eye, with video footage from a low-cost security camera used to identify early signs of lameness.
Speaking at the Ag Tech event, Roger Allen from Cattle Eye explained that the system is able to pick up on slight changes in mobility, including how much weight is being put on each foot. A lameness report is available each day to the farmer.
“Ideally we want cows moving in a single file, for example a race on the exit from a parlour – we need the cow to be walking for three seconds – we can then mobility score,” said Allen.
He maintained that the scope of the technology can be extended to monitor the likes of body condition score and rumen fill.
An online farm sustainability tool has been developed in NI, and takes into account the various factors that make a farm sustainable, including environmental, economic and social well-being measurements.
Explaining the concept, Dr Ryan McGuire from QUB said that Food Futures is the first of its kind, with 40 areas evaluated to come up with an overall assessment, which includes feedback on areas on the farm that can be improved.
The first phase of the project partnered with 30 farms in NI to develop the tool, with a second phase in 2022 involving a pilot to develop proof of concept, with 162 participating farmers.
“The end game is that this [Food Futures] becomes the principle measuring tool for sustainability on farm in NI,” said McGuire.
Food Futures is funded by Invest NI and the Agri-Food Quest Competence Centre based at QUB.