This time last year, the “Beast from the East” brought snow and freezing temperatures, which were followed – pretty quickly, it seemed – by a dry, hot summer. Farming has always had to work alongside the elements, but just how far can technology go to help mitigate the risks of weather and make even better use of increasingly complex on-farm weather data?
Short and long-term weather forecasting has become increasingly sophisticated and accurate and is a key element of farm planning and crop management. As well as revealing the optimum windows for tasks such as spraying or harvesting, predictions of particular conditions have for years enabled warnings of increased risk of crop damage or disease outbreaks.
For example, the “Smith period” traditionally details a particular combination of temperature and relative humidity which increases the risk of infection by late blight, the UK’s most significant disease of potatoes (and cause of the Irish Potato Famine). This has been updated more recently by the James Hutton Institute but the premise is still sound.
Weather stations and monitoring equipment to help provide real-time information about conditions in the field are also becoming more advanced and prices of devices are coming down. Plus, the application of artificial intelligence to the information emerging from these devices is enabling interpolation of data leading to greater accuracy of prediction between stations (reducing the number of devices needed on farm). Harnessing the so-called “internet of things” also allows connectivity with each other and a smartphone to enable real-time remote sensing.
The interrogation of long-term historical weather data sets also helps provide benchmarking of the current growing season, and when introduced into a plant growth or yield model, can provide valuable insights into the rate of development – and predict potential maturation dates and yields. This kind of analysis is helping to model supply chains for a range of crop species, with the aim of improving scheduling, reducing waste and managing supply chains more efficiently.
Controlled Environment Agriculture
Of course, crops that are grown undercover or in controlled environments (are you coming to our Controlled Environment Agriculture event this month?!) are not at the mercy of the elements. However, providing the optimum growing conditions comes at a cost.
From an engineering perspective, photosynthesis is a relatively inefficient process, however the energy from the sun is free, providing the warmth and light needed for plant growth. Providing this artificially can be an expensive challenge, however plants growing outdoors spend a lot of their own energy tolerating and adapting to fluctuations in temperature, light and moisture. So the perfect growing conditions can accelerate growth cycles, provide more frequent harvests at reliable dates and remove the risks of unfavourable weather conditions.
Looking to the future
All the evidence suggests that the changing climate is likely to be subject to more extreme weather events, but with the right monitoring technologies, integration of weather data into crop growth models, and the potential – in some cases – to mitigate against weather fluctuations by growing undercover, technology is again on hand to help manage the challenges of the weather.