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Berkshire Farm Girl on the trials of a wet harvest and the future of farming using GPS technology



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Harvest is finally over and it has been one of the most challenging years for harvesting. Eleanor Gilbert from Rookery Farm, Newbury explains why.

Eleanor Gilbert wants to educate people about farming in the 21st century. Halfway through her second year at Harper Adams Agricultural University in Shropshire, Eleanor continues to juggle university life with farming. She also finds time to visit schools in the area to educate young ones about agriculture and has appeared on the BBC farming programme Countryfile to talk about the future of farming.

It all comes down to the weather and this year the weather was against us.

It's been a wet harvest
It's been a wet harvest

We already have a difficult job due to an extremely short window when the crops are fit for harvest, getting the timing right can be the difference between a profit or a loss within an enterprise.

With 12,000 acres of straw to cover – equivalent to 9075 football pitches – and 3,500 acres of cereals (wheat, barley, oats etc) to combine – equivalent to 2,646 football pitches – we had our work cut out for us this year.

The straw that is a by-product of the cereal crops kept getting wet and made it nearly impossible to bale.

Harvest time at Rookery Farm
Harvest time at Rookery Farm

Day after day we would ted it (flick it out to dry it in the sun) only to have a rain shower. It was relentless, the workload kept increasing day after day after day.

Nevertheless, we grafted through with long hours (100 hours plus a week) lack of sleep, hard work and not a single day off resulting in an extended harvest.

Normally we would have a week or two getting all the machinery up together and slowing up before drilling (sowing next year’s crop) started.

This year we were drilling and harvesting all at the same time. We were finishing our day jobs and drilling into the night to ensure that we got next year’s crop in on time; if the crop isn’t drilled at the right time, then it can be susceptible to weeds, pests, diseases and in extreme cases it can cause crop failure.

Eleanor makes use of GPS technology
Eleanor makes use of GPS technology

So, what do we use as farmers to help us work efficiently to get the crops in?

If we start with the word automation what comes to mind? Robots?

You may have recently seen the hands-free hectare project on BBC Countryfile. The Harper Adams University team have developed driverless machinery and an entire field produced food solely by directing the machinery from a tablet. While still in its early development we are already using automation in many ways as you can see from this sprayer in the picture.

Eleanor checks that everything is set up and ready to go
Eleanor checks that everything is set up and ready to go

These modern-day machines are already playing a vital role enabling us to work in a more efficient and sustainable way.

We introduced a new kind of technology called ‘see and spray'. This uses camera technology to identify colour differentiation within a field. As the sprayer goes through the field the camera can detect small weeds only spraying a small area rather than blanket spraying the whole field.

This is more cost effective and better for the environment, because we are using less chemicals, reducing the risk of leaching into water courses and the environment.

Bringing in the harvest
Bringing in the harvest

Another technology used is Global Positioning Systems (GPS). This is a little green dish which sits on top of the sprayer/tractor as shown in the picture. This maps the fields and records data, ie harvest yields. It also allows for yield mapping and variable rate application to take place as well as steering the tractor without any input from the driver. This allows for precision accuracy and saves time since there is no overlap.

So, will autonomous machines be the the future of farming?

It will certainly help with the shortage of labour that we are currently facing in the sector and perhaps offe

Eleanor visits Ladybirds pre-school
Eleanor visits Ladybirds pre-school
Berkshire Farm Girl Eleanor Gilbert
Berkshire Farm Girl Eleanor Gilbert


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