Funding helping shape future crop production
As featured in Arable Farming Magazine
Funding helping shape future crop production
by Arable Farming Magazine October 2022 issue
Low carbon fertilisers and field robots are among the projects winning £11 million of funding from Defra.
The challenges and opportunities that surround UK crop production are diverse and wide-ranging, taking in social, economic and agronomic factors.
But the search for new solutions to address these is being supported by the Small R&D Partnerships competition, managed by UK Research and Innovations (UKRI) Transforming Food Production challenge, which funds industrial research studies focused on major on-farm or immediate post farmgate challenges.
The latest beneficiaries of the £11 million of funding have been announced, with applications focusing on sustainability, resilience, productivity and net zero ambitions.
Scaling up clean fertilisers
For the arable sector, fertiliser prices and availability are perhaps at the forefront of most growers minds at the moment.
And with many fertiliser plants scaling back due to rocketing gas prices, a Swindon-based clean tech company is looking to expand production of its nitrogen products.
CCm Technologies produces fertilisers using a process it developed using carbon dioxide to stabilise organic waste streams.
These nutrient-rich materials are combined to create fertiliser formulations that address specific agronomic and environmental needs through significantly lower than usual carbon and resource footprints, says the company.
UKRI has awarded the firm £682,000 of funding that will see its first-year joint project with Cranfield University at the Luton Hoo estate extended to three years.
CCm says the additional funds will provide continued data on crop yields from three different types of fertiliser and generate new data around the long-term retention of soil carbon and nutrient use efficiency of the products.
CCms formulations have different volumes of nitrogen (5%, 10% and 15%) enabling the trial to test whether the fertiliser could equal or outperform conventional fertilisers with reduced amounts of nitrogen being applied, bringing a range of economic and environmental benefits.
The first years trial produced results indicating equivalent farm crop yields using 20% less nutrient application when using a CCm fertiliser, the company claims.
It says the slow-release composition of the pellets has suggested conventional spreading windows could be extended.
The extension of funding from UKRI will allow CCm to increase in-field fertiliser applications from three tonnes to 1,000t across a number of farms in England.
Robots to replace harvest teams
With labour availability the biggest threat to the horticulture industry, exciting developments are being seen in the world of field robotics.
Supported by £1.7m of UKRI funding over 19-months, a collaborative project between Muddy Machines and its growers will develop and demonstrate a working herd of lightweight, battery-operated robots able to harvest vegetables in-field sustainably and reliably.
Precision Muddy Machines technology allows farmers to precision harvest crops like asparagus and its Sprout robot can drive through fields, harvesting accurately for up to 16 hours a day with no need for breaks and no decline in performance.
CEO of the company, Florian Richter, says: Despite these successes, a single Sprout cannot selectively harvest a typical crop alone and a herd of semi-autonomous Sprouts is needed.
This represents our next significant innovation challenge, realising a herd, or swarm of robots.
The company, which has already built and successfully field-tested an autonomous asparagus harvest robot, has also received funding to work alongside fresh produce grower Barfoots of Botley to explore the feasibility to harvest courgettes with Sprout.
Mr Richter says: Courgettes present more complex challenges for imaging software and, in particular, the gripping mechanism, which will need to twist the courgettes off the plant rather than cut at ground level.
This project is an important step on our journey to develop a completely novel class of agricultural machine that can reliably replace manual labour to address the needs of UK growers, whose platform can be used in this project.
Also receiving UKRI funding in the horticulture sector, the Gs Fresh Sentinel crop disease surveillance network project uses several identical sensing devices located in a crop to provide an early warning of the presence of disease pathogens and present a recommended fungicide management plan.
Meanwhile, S&A Produces Project Blue Planet II builds on the success of its predecessor to develop automated technology incorporating machine vision systems which improve crop yield and quality of fruit, improving flavour and consistency.