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Is data the way to sustainable and productive farming?  

Angus Chalmers

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Hi, I’m Angus Chalmers, the founder and Managing Director of RDP, a marketing company specialising in agribusiness and animal health.  

In this month’s instalment of The Inside Track, I’ll be discussing data and its potential for a transformative effect not only on productivity, but in helping farmers begin to meet some of the broader requirements of society.  

Balancing productivity and sustainability  

Farming faces the challenge and opportunity of being seen as part of the solution to managing climate change and helping the UK achieve net zero. As a result, farmers are expected to produce food in a nature positive way –  increasing biodiversity, improving soil health,  ensuring water and air are not being polluted, and animals are being cared for through better animal welfare alongside the reduction and eradication of diseases.  

At the same time, there is a productivity gap. While there are many farmers who are in the top 20% of production, there is also a long tail.  

The need to improve productivity while at the same time delivering against all these other requirements is a real balancing act. So how do farmers achieve this? One of the key drivers is data.  

Data is only meaningful with human interaction 

If you don’t know where your farm business is at this moment in time and you can’t measure it, you can’t do anything to improve it. That’s why data is absolutely crucial to help us achieve the things we want agriculture to deliver.  

The caveat is that data can only be used to its full potential with human interaction. Data on its own is almost worthless because unless it’s the right data and it’s been collected in the right way, and is consistent, it means very little. 

Similarly, if there’s nobody there to interpret and analyse it, you can’t make informed decisions.  

The dilemma with data  

So human interaction is incredibly important. However in a way, that’s what creates the dilemma with data. People have got to want to change and want to engage with it.  

I was speaking to a vet recently and he was saying that he knows as a vet, his key role is to improve farm productivity, improve animal welfare, and ensure responsible use of medicines, particularly antibiotics. Speaking to him got me thinking; the government has just introduced the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway which pays farmers to receive a vet visit to improve the health and welfare of livestock. Wouldn’t that be an ideal opportunity for vets to collect data and for farmers to provide that data, providing the opportunity to improve productivity on farm as well as efficiency in practices whilst producing a wealth of data to tackle the broader issues of disease control and medicine use?  

Collaboration is key  

Even with the potential for opportunities like this, farmers have got to want to share their data, and be easily able to share it too. In the same way, vets have got to see that by putting time and effort into collecting and analysing data, it has a bigger picture benefit as well as the immediate efficiency gains. There’s always inertia when the to do list is already long. 

Collaboration is key. Although I think data is crucial and it’s going to require individuals to want to share, collect, and analyse it, the issues we are trying to address are so huge, we have to collaborate across the food supply chain. Individual farmers can’t be made to feel like the onus is all on them.  

If data is the future (and I believe it is), we need to ensure the organisation, the collaboration, trust and the communication is right to make it as transformative as it has the potential to be.  

We have to make it really clear to people what the benefits are and there needs to be something in it for everyone, it can’t just be reliant upon those farmers and advisors who have an altruistic approach.  Which is why collaboration in my view is so important, breaking down barriers across supply chains is essential. If the offer is bigger and more layered, more people will be able to benefit.  

Tapping into ready-made associations and assurance schemes is a way to make greater progress as many barriers have already been broken down. 

The importance of accepting change  

For some farmers, the thought of making the effort to pull data together or buying a system that allows it to be monitored may feel like a burden, but that’s why we need to clearly communicate the benefits.  

The good news for those farmers who are reluctant to take those steps into digital farming is that it’s absolutely becoming easier. Technology is becoming easier to use with the widespread use of apps in particular and double entry is reducing as more systems communicate across platforms.   

Change is coming, and there needs to be an acceptance that change is going to help us progress and move forward. The key is ensuring that the help and recognition is there.  

The need for infrastructure that supports farmers  

Farmers are the ones who are managing the majority of the land we have. That land acts as a carbon sink, it feeds us, and it feeds our souls as well as our stomachs, so we have a big responsibility. However, at the same time, there has to be a recognition from society that the industry carries that responsibility. We don’t have all the answers and we need that supportive infrastructure in place to enable us to work collaboratively.  

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