Agri-Tech Week 2018: Big data and the supply chain


Helping producers benefit from objective consumer insights was one of the subjects discussed at ‘Big Data and the Supply Chain’,  the Norfolk-based Agri-Tech Week event hosted by the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association in partnership with University of East Anglia and Easton & Otley College.

Delegates got an overview of how different types of data can be used across the food supply chain. At the field level data includes: yield, weather (temperature, wind, rain fall), fuel consumption, engine performance. At the livestock level it will be: carcass composition, gut health, indoor environment data such as temperature, humidity etc. At the consumer level it includes: shopping habits such as where customers shop, what they buy, how often and how much is spent. 

Many types of big data

Ed Miller, Claas
Ed Miller, Claas

Data in isolation has little value; it is only when it is given a context and used in conjunction with other data sources that it can start to bring insights. David Flanders, CEO of Agrimetrics, one of the four centres of excellence, described the advances the organisation has made in relating disparate information from public sources to a physical place such as a field. This enables a more user-centric approach to data and the opportunity to analyse it in new ways and to model and forecast different scenarios.

Ed Miller from Claas explained how data collected by large machinery can provide insights into their maintenance requirements, providing the opportunity for preventative action and feedback on the features that are advantageous. In 2017 it launched the connected machines initiative to offer a benefit to their customers, allowing them to use the data.

The automated machinery service from Claas configures the client’s machinery for optimised performance, based on customer experience and field data captured.

Mark Young from CIEL described the new research facilities for livestock health, including the first outdoor research facility at the University of Leeds. The focus for CIEL is animal nutrition, forage measurements, genetics and breeding and includes new monogastric research facilities from CIEL. This is designed to investigate pig and poultry behaviour for increased feed efficiency and welfare.

Objective data for decision support

Customer insights are creating the opportunity for objective information about consumer buying behaviours. Professor Andrew Fearne of UEA outlined the opportunities this creates for the value-chain in improving the connection between consumer and producer, however he warned that consolidation in the industry is creating greater risk for producers. An obsession with efficiency and price could result in UK retailers reducing their dependence on UK agriculture which will mean prices go down and food is sourced from where there is a lower cost food production. To address this UEA has developed a portal ( which has assisted over 700 SMEs over last 14 years to use consumer insights to inform production.

From data to decision-making

Vast amounts of raw data are being generated on farm now. However, this data is often not very useful at that stage. Simple analytics such as looking at historical trends for yield and comparing costs of production can provide the valuable insight needed to drive decisions. The issue of skills was touched on, because a certain level of IT literacy is essential to use these tools.

Use on farm

Within the debate, farmers shared how they were using data in their businesses. Andrew Blenkiron is using soil mapping to determine nutrient content and direct precision spraying. GPS on tractors is used for positioning and smart controls used to shut off sprayers and drills. The results are evaluated by yield mapping. However, interpretation of data is a big challenge and support is needed to determine nutrients and seed rates, as well as inputs. The farm also has EID in sheep, to determine ram selection.

Giles Aubrey mainly grows root veg on-farm and his farm is an early adopter of new tech. They are using the Omnia platform to control blackgrass using drone imagery.

Easton Otley ATW18 event
L-R front row – Andrew Blenkiron (Euston Estate), Giles Abrey (Abrey Farms), Helen Webb (Dalehead Foods), Prof Andrew Fearne (UEA) L-R back row Clarke Willis (Chairman, Norfolk Rural Strategy Group), Mark Nicholas (Programme Director, Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association), Dr Belinda Clarke (Director of Agri-Tech East)

Key points discussed

Lack of inter-operability of equipment  – ISOXML is the industry standard but all the manufacturers interpret it slightly differently. In time this should become better if everyone makes their systems more user-centric.

Gaps in skills at farm level needed to interpret data –  People do need to be IT literate, but shouldn’t need a specific set of skills to do it.

Transparency is going to be the big data driver –  where data is gathering there should be a benefit for the data owner.

Big data is about giving the right information at the right time.

Digitisation is running ahead of process – Technology is at odds with inflexible (legacy) systems, structures and processes. All in the value-chain have data but it isn’t joined up and many don’t know what to do with it.

There is an opportunity to shorten the supply chain –  Improved data analytics, emerging governance structures (eg blockchain) could create opportunities for greater trust.

Still concerns over sharing data and data storage – in particular producers have concerns about the data being used against them.

Do you develop trust before you share, or is sharing part of the process of creating the trust?


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