Earth Smart sheep

A ground-breaking research centre is turning South West England into a 'living laboratory' with the intention of answering some of agriculture’s most pressing sustainability questions.
Opinions on how to make agriculture more sustainable vary greatly but, for the University of Plymouth's Professor Richard Preziosi, the answers can be revealed by the cutting-edge technology at our fingertips.
<>Research excellence
Research England recently granted a £5.7m funding award to the University of Plymouth to set up a Centre of Research excellence in Intelligent and Sustainable Productive Systems (CRISPS). One of the key aims of CRISPS is to create a toolbox of agricultural sensors that can collect data to help inform on current practice and facilitate precision farming on a landscape scale.
The South West provides the ideal place for this work. The region has a very diverse landscape, including productive arable and horticultural systems, extensive livestock production, and upland environments such as the National Parks of Exmoor, Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor.
This allows scientists and farmers to work together, co-creating approaches to using accessible handheld scanners, animal- and robot-mounted sensors, and genetic technology, to investigate agricultural precision at the scale of the entire catchment, from land above the source of many major Westcountry rivers, through fields, woods and other productive systems, all the way to the estuary and beyond.
<>Healthy soils
Agricultural soil health is firmly in the spotlight following the realisation that intensive practices have significantly depleted this precious resource since the start of the Green Revolution.
“In some cases, we are now in a situation where a system with depleted soils, propped up by artificial fertiliser and pesticides, can be less productive than a system with healthy soil and no artificial inputs,” says Richard.
“Some inputs are still needed, but the most important action now is improving soil health, which will increase baseline productivity and reduce reliance on inputs overall.”
Soil health can mean different things to different people, and one of the new centre’s most important remits is to try to find a simple and accessible way of quantifying soil health on farm.
Richard says many farmers can simply pick up a handful of soil and be able to tell if it’s healthy or not, but that doesn’t tell us why it is in good order.
“If we can determine what a healthy soil is and identify the bioindicators which tell us if soils are becoming more or less healthy before we see it with the naked eye, we can take pre-emptive action and start to restore our soils in the right way.
The first step in enabling this real-time soil health monitoring is identifying the most important soil organisms in each system.
These could be communities of macro-organisms like worms, soil mites and beetles, right down to groups of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi, which can be identified in soil using DNA detection technology.
The ultimate goal is for farmers to be able to take a sample, mix with a buffer containing a reagent and drop it onto a small piece of filter paper to tell if they have the right functional groups of biology in their soil.
“Development of these genetic technologies takes a lot of initial investment, but once there, these tests will be very cheap and accessible for anyone to use,” says Richard.
<>Animal sensors, environmental sensors and automation
Precision farming technology is familiar to some arable and horticultural businesses, and the dairy industry, but not to those working in extensive grazing systems, such as upland pastoral farms.
With incentives for farmers not solely based on production, but being increasingly focused on the environment, it is important to understand how livestock affects these landscapes. Advances in sensors, big data and automation will be key for monitoring factors like habitat development and loss, eutrophication and soil dynamics, including erosion, compaction and disease spread.
Dr Mark Whiteside whose research at the University of Plymouth centres around using sensors to analyse animal movement, health and production, says CRISPS aims to develop precision farming techniques to help understand more about livestock welfare and their impacts on the biodiversity, carbon storage, natural flood management and other ecosystem services offered by their environments.
For instance, animal-mounted biologger sensors (e.g., collars and ear tags) will not only be able to track where animals are, but also collect data on whether they are foraging, expending energy or have welfare concerns. Environmental sensors, either fixed in the ground or mounted on existing platforms likes drones, ATVs or small robots, can map landscapes, measure temperature, humidity, soil pH, moisture and carbon content.
Robot dog moving through a marsh
The sensors can all be linked together using a simple Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) system, which is able to receive data from multiple animal and environmental sensors at once. It can then be visualised in real time and delivered to researchers with minimal power requirement and without the need for 3G and 4G networks – crucial in upland areas and deep river valleys. Deployed in a mob grazing system, for example, data collected could tell us when soils have become too wet or whether they have dried out enough for grazing in the spring, helping to reduce compaction or prevent run-off risk.
Mark says with farmers receiving environmentally focussed payments through the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), using precision technology in this way will provide a good scientific benchmark of how different options are performing relative to their aims.
“For us to understand the environmental benefits of agricultural practice, we need to go beyond the individual farm boundary and that’s why we are working with clusters of farms at a catchment level.
“This will not only help improve productivity and animal welfare, but also the wider environmental impact of pastoral systems,” adds Mark.
It is this combination of animal-based sensors, environmental sensors and easily accessible ‘real time’ data that could revolutionise how we farm.
LoRaWAN sensors in the field
<>Accurate picture
The approach by CRISPS is effectively turning Southwest England into a “living laboratory”, with the ability to glean information from thousands of data points.
The average trends from these networks will give an incredibly accurate picture of what is happening on a landscape scale in real time.
The University of Plymouth will support farmers – both aspiring and experienced – in adoption of the technologies, through a range of options that could include degree level modules or short professional development courses.
Much of the technology is already developed and its application is being refined by the CRISPS team and partner farmers.
Richard says the ambition is to have a suite of tools to choose from, which can be tailored to suit a farm’s system and local conditions, within the next three to five years.
“Much of the changes being made on-farm are driven by anecdotal evidence, so farmers are really excited by this work because it will help steer best practice and future agricultural research and policy direction with the power of data,” he adds.
Mark Whiteside with biologger collar
This article is adapted from a piece published in Farmers Weekly, 14 June 2024.
<>Earth Smart
By bringing research directly into the field, working with farmers, landowners and communities, we are co-creating sustainable land management strategies. We are developing practical approaches to using advanced agri-tech and sensor technology to provide rapid, real-world data that can be applied at the right time and in the right place for productive, sustainable, healthy landscapes.
At Plymouth, we are bridging the gap between research and action – we are Earth Smart.
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