PIP blog part two: How farmers have embraced technology during COVID-19

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In the second part of a two-part series, NFU Poultry Industry Programme (PIP) member and egg producer from the West Midlands, Will Lea, shares his insights from a series of virtual sessions which were set up for the PIP group since COVID-19 put a halt on face to face meetings. He writes…

As the NFU Poultry Industry Programme continues, the second virtual session involved a presentation from David Speller who runs the ‘Optifarm’ network and manages several broiler farms in the UK. We discussed innovation, technology and robotics which linked nicely into the current situation with COVID-19, as collectively farmers along with the general public have all embraced technology which I consider to be one of very few benefits to this pandemic.

Will's first blog gives an insight into the work of the NFU's team in Brussels, read it here.

Every industry worldwide has been affected in some shape or form whether that be for better or worse. However, one positive from the pandemic is that everyone has become more technologically minded and has embraced the opportunity to develop their skills and knowledge. Farmers have especially embraced that change, who would have thought we would be doing live video calls to carry out our compliance audits?

Just like David Speller, I find myself with any excuse to incorporate toys and gadgets into the working environment. New technology is like Marmite - you either love it or hate it - but as technology is continually developing you can soon be left behind.

Technology and new development has always been a point of interest for me, and when I was at Harper Adams University I did my dissertation on robotics with the question being: Is it possible to replace a good stockperson with such advanced technology available today? The answer is not that straight forward.

Every sector within the agricultural industry will share a different outlook on this, however the poultry industry is very much measured on numbers and percentages. Technology benefits people in different ways for example, poultry producers in the top 10% will not see a significant difference in performance and may struggle to justify the extra cost with the aid of robotics, however poorer performing farms will see a massive change and ultimately will see the largest difference and be able to justify the investment with someone like David interpreting the data the other side.

Some people will question the integrity of this, as in theory poorer performing farms will be able to reap the reward of higher performance and returns. However, I think we should remember that it is in all our interests collectively to put animal welfare first, before monetary value.

I strongly believe that you will never replace a good stockperson and I always say that the robot or computer is only as good as the person who programmed it and the results of data collected are only as good as the person analysing it. I do however believe that if you combine a good stockperson and advanced technology, this will become a very powerful tool.

David explained some of the technology he uses to enhance his business. One example is a robot in his broiler sheds known as the ‘chicken boy’.

This works on a monorail system and continually collects data from his shed and the environment. The robot then feeds data from the shed into a computer, the information being recorded includes things such as air pressure and this will tell you the thermal comfort along with C02 levels which may indicate over or under ventilating the shed.

Data on its own means nothing so David, along with his team, are continually assessing the data received and then react to it accordingly.

David told us that currently in the medicine industry innovation and robotics are at the forefront and successful operations on humans have been carried out remotely with the use of robots being controlled from a doctor on the other side of the world!

This has been designed for disaster areas where doctors cannot be flown in as it either takes too long or is unsafe to do so. For this reason, the development of this technology is truly fascinating, but really demonstrates the capability to our industry, there is no reason why we couldn’t do this with post mortems on farm in the near future.

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