A glimpse into the future of farming was given at the first of the winter meetings of Fermanagh Grassland Club when the speaker was Dr. Debbie McConnell, Dairy Grassland Scientist at AFBI.

From a dairy, beef and sheep farm in Co.Tyrone, Dr McConnell spent five years with AHDB and undertook a Nuffield Scholarship study tour in 2016 looking at the role of new technology on dairy farms.

Dr. McConnell looked at precision technology in a changing world for her meeting with the Club. In years to come, it is estimated that every person will have access to 6.6 connected devices, such is the current use of smart technology by consumers.

New technology is already in food deliveries which accounted for some £600m of sales and one restaurant in Japan uses robots to serve customers.

Agritech, she said, was one of the fastest growing industries at present. Already operating on dairy farms are devices for miking or heat detection.

Dr. McConnell said advantages of technology could be found in landscapes, climate and animals and plants and technology is used to measure systems such as field to yield systems or nutrient management systems with a good example being GPS precision fertiliser spreading.

Technology is also used in grass measuring and trials are currently underway at AFBI with the use of drones and other technology.

The GrassCheck weekly chart showing grass growth across sites in Northern Ireland, has shown that so far this year, Fermanagh farmers have grown 11.6 tonnes.

Looking at new technology being developed for the future, Dr. McConnell referred to drones which are already being used in some countries to measure grass quickly. Grass plate meters need to be used weekly and can take up to three hours each time. Early designs are able to provide data of crude proteins and metabolisable energy.

However the disadvantage of drones is that payloads are limited, flight times are short because of battery power and there are likely to be more regulations governing their use in the future.

Looking at traffic management and precision farming, Dr.McConnell looked at data from machinery cutting silage in fields. Results showed that 65 per cent of fields were covered by tyre treads but one year trial work indicated that 10 per cent yield would benefit from controlled traffic farming in grassland.

She looked at machines using the latest technology to control weeds in horticulture. She also showed the world's first robotic rotary milking parlour in Tasmania. The farm has 550 cows producing 8,300 litres from 2.4 tonnes of concentrates.

In New Zealand, Dr. McConnell discovered a robotic dairy farm with 480 cows but the owner managing the herd lived quite a distance away and managed through computers in his office. This aspect of virtual farming highlighted the best and worst performing cows.

Another new technology being developed is virtual fencing. Cows wear collars and an imaginary line runs through a field. When cows approach this, an alarm or light shock is given to the cows to keep them away.

In New Zealand there are developments of a robotic herder.

She said that pitfalls of technology included under performance, they were expensive and hard to benchmark. They can be often difficult to use and sometimes gave too much data.

She observed that skills sets for the use of this technology were different from conventional farming.

She told farmers that they must ask themselves what they were trying to improve, how they were going to measure it, did they have the right skills and would it work with existing tech on the farm.

Summarising, Dr. McConnell said precision technology would be a key driver for change in agriculture across the world and help play a key role in global food product challenges.

Answering questions, she said scientists would still like to know how much grass a cow has eaten.