The UK government has announced plans to invest £10 million in a new Centre for Agricultural Informatics and Metrics and Success.
The announcement was made as part of the UK's new "agri-tech" strategy, designed to improve the productivity, profitability and environmental impact of the country's farming industry through biological and digital technology.
The strategy puts aside £90 million over five years to establish a small number of Centres for Agricultural Innovation "to support advances in sustainable intensification".
The centres will seek to promote private and public sector collaboration and co-investment, develop skills in the workforce, and offer advice to farmers.
The first centre will focus on the application of informatics and big data in agriculture.
"The huge amount of data generated from the laboratory to the farm to the retailer has the potential to drive innovation throughout the agri-tech sector," the strategy asserts.
"At the individual farm level, more precise data will increasingly be used to provide evidence of compliance with regulatory and quality assurance and traceability requirements," it says. "At an aggregated level, benchmarking information allows farmers to compare their own performance with local, regional and national averages."
"Bringing farming data together with related information on areas including consumer preferences and trends and climate change data has the potential to generate even greater business benefit," the strategy claims. "It can provide the evidence to define, understand better and help deliver sustainable intensification."
Examples of information-related innovation in the farming sector include a crop management tool developed by drinks giant PepsiCo in collaboration with Cambridge University.
"Rolled out to farmers in 2011, the tool provides precision information about crops, helping farmers reduce their water use and carbon emissions, boost harvests and increase efficiency."
Another example is a data sharing scheme between supermarket Sainsbury's and its dairy suppliers. Farmers share data including electricity usage, manure storage and fuel usage, and in return can benchmark their performance against others.
"The data show, for example, that the best 10% of producers are delivering 47% more yield than the worst 10% of producers using 11% less feed," the strategy document says. "This difference alone is worth £4.5 million a year."
The centre will also develop metrics and performance indicators to "help identify what works, why and in which environment, allowing for achievable and realistic targets".
Information Age recently spoke to Keld Florczak, a technology entrepreneur who developed a system, called CowView, that uses RFID tags to allow dairy farmers to monitor and analyse the location of their cattle.
He said he was surprised to find how little digital innovation there has been in the agricultural sector, something he blames partly on the established farming software vendors' closed-source approach.
However, the situation is changing, he said. “Young farmers are much more familiar with the benefit that they can get out of these things.”
He added that while German and Dutch dairy farmers have invested heavily in the infrastructure required to industrialise milk production, their UK counterparts have tended to focus on paying greater attention to individual cows.
"They say, we'd rather have more information about each cow and based on that decide which process needs automating from an infrastructure perspective.”