Autonomous agricultural production is economically feasible, study finds

Producing arable crops using stand-alone equipment is both technically and economically feasible – and could help boost mid-sized farms, according to a new study.

The article, published in Precision agriculture, uses the experience of Harper University’s Hands Free Farm project to demonstrate that medium-sized farms can produce arable crops at near minimum levels of cost of production per unit.

These changes mean that the use of stand-alone equipment could lead to greater independence for farmers, a chance for small farms to become cost-competitive, and less need for farmers to ‘get big or get out’ in business. arable production.

The article is the work of Harper Adams professors James Lowenberg-DeBoer, Richard Godwin, Karl Behrendt and senior lecturer Kit Franklin – and is the first of its kind to be published.

Lowenberg-DeBoer said the paper “focuses on the Hands Free Farm experiment – and examines the economic feasibility of robotics of the type that was used on the Hands Free Hectare.

“The hands-free farm is a great place to study the economics of agricultural robotics, which is currently a very little studied area,” he explained.

“As far as I know, this is the only place on earth – certainly in the public sector – where you can get information over an entire cycle to compare results of the type we did, especially with equipment. autonomous. “

Due to the unique nature of the Hands Free Farm and Hectare projects, the researchers were able to use the data obtained in the paper to show how crop robotics could be applied to arable agriculture – drawing on real experience. in the field and on real data not available. to many other studies on crop robotics.

The nature of the equipment used on the hands-free projects was also beneficial for the study, said Professor Lowenberg-DeBoer.

“Because Hands Free Hectare used modernized conventional equipment, we know the costs for each piece of that equipment – you can calculate that using the cost of conventional equipment.

“It’s a much better place to exhibit that kind of analysis. The idea was to produce an economic study to help engineers and investors determine what would be the best use of this equipment.

“Much of this technology is becoming readily available and is almost here – and the hands-free farm has shown it to be possible,” he said.

The study noted that the costs of farming using stand-alone equipment used on the hands-free farm are significantly lower than with conventional farms – as the equipment involved is smaller and used much more widely.

The report concludes: “The ability to achieve near-minimal production costs on relatively smaller farms and with modest investment in equipment means that the pressure for agricultural enterprises to continually seek economies of scale (ie. that is, “get big or get out”) is diminished.

“It gives the opportunity for small grain companies to become profitable instead of being a lifestyle choice.

“By reducing the need for investment in labor and equipment, these small grain businesses could be combined with livestock, value-added on-farm activities or off-farm jobs to provide sufficient income for the needs of the family. “

Professor Lowenberg-DeBoer added that arable autonomy could actually help create new opportunities.

“With stand-alone equipment, for example, it will be possible for many more farms to go organic,” he said.

“With stand-alone equipment and a little AI, you can create machines that allow farmers to do things at much more competitive prices.

“If the policy framework around self-contained facilities is properly aligned, it can help create new opportunities for agriculture – and new opportunities for young people. “

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