The government-backed Technology Strategy Board will support Yara UK's three-year research project to increase grass yields.
UK farming is becoming increasingly more scientific. Who would have believed, only a few years ago, that the fields of Devon and Cumbria would be cultivated by farmers using highly sophisticated technological equipment. "Now we are developing the N-Sensor, our tractor-mounted crop sensor currently used only in arable crops, to measure the nitrogen (N) requirements for grass," says Yara UK agronomist Ian Matts.
A new generation of farmers
Technology is truly shaping all aspects of society, including professions traditionally made up of a manual workforce. A farmer today needs to be a highly skilled technician, mastering a range of new technologies that assist him to improve yields and make the best out of invested agricultural resources.
"The N-Sensor will, for the first time, provide farmers with a simple, precise method of calculating the amount of N needed, on a field by field, meter by meter basis. At the moment, this just doesn't exist," Ian Matts adds.
The project has tremendous potential benefits for UK farmers, and can provide a high-profile example of Yara's differentiation through expertise. Increased grass productivity can help dairy and beef farmers fight rising feed costs.
"One of the main reasons for low grass yields is the poor use of N fertilizer and failure to account for spatial variation in N fertilizer demand within fields and across the farm," Ian explains. "Current methods of estimating N requirements are complex and there is no practical method for variably applying N according to plant needs."
New test trials scheduled
Yara is lead partner on the project to calibrate the N-Sensor for use on grass, and will work with four leading industry players - Adas, Precision Decisions, DLF Trifolium and Countrywide Farmers.
"Due to the difficulties surrounding grass production - mixtures of different varieties in swards, applying to stubble after harvest - second and subsequent cuts - we have struggled to develop a calibration in the past," Ian says.
There are currently plans to carry out three nitrogen rate trials, scanned with a test sensor, and one timing trial.
"The three sites will be spread around England and Wales and will cover two cuts over two seasons," he adds. "Next year we will then aim to carry out four validation trials on farms with strip trial work."
Preliminary estimates foresee a potential to more than double grass yields, and that 10 percent of livestock farmers will adopt the technology within five years of project completion.