UKRI awards more than £8m to innovative new farming concepts

Thuringia, Germany: A harvester harvests wheat on a field, photographed directly from above.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has today announced the winners of a combined £8 million in funding, as part of Defra’s Farming Innovation Programme.

The feasibility projects competition was created to back new and innovative solutions, aid research and collaboration, and encourage collaboration across the UK’s farmers, growers and foresters.

The competition, managed by UKRI’s transforming food production challenge and delivered by Innovate UK, ran from October to December 2021.

It sought applications of up to £500,000 to support the investigation of early-stage solutions that have the potential to improve sustainability, productivity and resilience of UK farming on a path to net zero.

Projects were required to demonstrate the benefits the concept would generate, as well as how collaboration between farmers, businesses and researchers could be enhanced as a result.

Successful projects

Over 20 projects were successful in their applications, for a range of ideas across:

  • agriculture
  • animal farming
  • pest and disease detection
  • novel technology concepts.

Successful technology-led projects included Lettus Grow’s advanced aeroponic systems and Muddy Machines’ field-tested harvesting robots, while Yagro aim to utilise drone surveys to provide greater commercial data and intelligence to farmers.

Eyre Trailers, Earth Rover and Performance Projects all developed new concepts for harvesting, from combine harvester vehicles themselves, to broccoli and soft fruit.

Improving sustainability in farming

Katrina Hayter, challenge director for the transforming food production challenge, said:

The breadth of areas covered by the successful projects clearly demonstrate just how many issues there are to tackle when it comes to innovating the UK’s food sector.

What these projects have shown is not simply a standalone solution, but a concept that forms part of a wider picture of improving the overall sustainability and productivity in farming.

Once again collaboration has been key, with new technology combining with research and in-the-field expertise to help drive these concepts forward.

As a further part of the Farming Innovation Programme, UKRI has also announced the opening of the research starter round two competition. Tackling early-stage at-farmgate ideas from farmers and growers to solve major problems facing their business, the competition offers up to £1 million.

Bringing concepts to life

Katrina Hayter added:

Who understands the issues facing farmers better than the farmers themselves?

We are always keen to support and make use of the on-the-ground knowledge that farmers, growers and foresters possess, and this competition enables some of these bold new ideas to be tested and researched at an early stage to see their potential for the wider sector.

We look forward to helping farmers take the first steps to bringing their concept to life.

Details on the feasibility projects winners can be found in ‘further information’.

Further information

UKRI’s £90 million transforming food production programme is part the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and aims to help the agricultural sector grow economically with less environmental impact.

The programme will set food production systems towards net zero emissions by 2040 by producing food in ways that are more:

  • efficient
  • resilient
  • sustainable.

It will accelerate the development and adoption of integrated precision approaches to improve productivity in agricultural systems. The investment will be made over four years.

The programme will focus on the development, demonstration and adoption of data-driven systems and technologies to achieve a better approach to agricultural production and reduce emissions.

The remit includes both crop and farmed animal production, as well, as new production systems. The long-term success of the challenge is dependent on a diverse range of farm businesses adopting new technologies and approaches.

Additional information on competition winners

Project High Speed Header (HSH): next generation combines, £394,693
(Eyre Trailers Ltd)

Project HSH develops a novel tractor mounted combine harvesting implement. This simple innovation significantly reduces harvester mass enabling a flexible tractor mounted system.

It is an ambitious and transformational idea with reduced financial cost and environmental impact. HSH is delivered by Eyre Trailers, agricultural engineers and HSH inventors, in collaboration with the Lincoln Institute of Agri Food Technology.

Robotic Courgette Harvester, £251,647
(Muddy Machines Ltd)

This project is an important step on Muddy Machine’s (MM) journey to develop a completely novel class of agricultural machine that can reliably replace manual labour to address the needs of UK growers.

MM already has built and successfully field-tested an autonomous asparagus harvest robot whose platform can be used in this project.

Exploiting soil microbiomes for development of natural fungicides targeting P. infestans, £290,264
(Bactobio Ltd)

The project’s aim is to provide growers with more effective, more sustainable options for crop protection against late blight and to safeguard England’s potato industry into the future.

This ambition aligns with UK plant science research strategy to develop better, greener soil management practices. It will support farmers in achieving the UK’s ambitions to boost productivity and reduce the environmental impact of farming for sustainable potato production.

Increasing productivity and sustainability in UK viticulture: investigating the potential impact of groundcover management practices on soil health, yields and juice quality, and emissions, £373,893
(Gusbourne Estate Ltd)

Project outputs will include evidence-based recommendations for growers on the best ground management approaches to suit UK vineyards.

The project proposes to carry out the first full-scale experiments and commercial trials of cover cropping and mechanical weeding strategies in UK vineyards to identify and tailor optimal soil management approaches for the UK industry.

Industry-wide uptake of these practices would demonstrate to the public, the horticultural sector and retailers that the viti industry is committed to achieving environmental and net zero goals.

PERP-ID: on farm point-of-care diagnostic for the porcine respiratory disease complex, £366,379
(ProtonDX Ltd)

This project is developing a test that can rapidly and cheaply detect major bacterial and viral lung pathogens of pigs that can be used for on-farm detection.

The PorcinE Respiratory Pathogen-Identification (PERP-ID) device is designed to identify the five bacterial and three major viral lung pathogens of pigs. It is based on an electronic system developed by ProtonDX that can rapidly detect the presence of specific DNA molecules.

The aim of the project is to substantially reduce suffering, death, antibiotic use, and economic losses in the UK and worldwide pig industry.

Sustainable, low impact fertilisers for agriculture, £390,623
(Stopford Projects Ltd)

This project seeks to formulate and trial balanced NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) fertilisers with trace elements. It does this by combining and processing residues from the bio-energy, agricultural and waste management sectors that offers performance akin to conventional manufactured fertiliser.

Sourcing nutrients from waste materials presents a cost-effective opportunity to maintain primary productivity whilst decarbonising farming through avoidance of energy intensive mineral based fertilisers.

Development of Multimodal Rumen Monitoring Platform (RuMP) for cattle to improve productivity, sustainability and resilience, £227,476
(Raft Solutions Ltd)

This project will target individual animal treatment by creating a low-cost RuMP. This will incorporate multiple sensing elements in a single device that includes unique biofouling mitigation methods to navigate the environment of the rumen microbiome.

Hoofcount vision detection for early signs of digital dermatitis lesions and lameness within dairy cattle, £418,092
(Hoofcount Ltd)

This project is researching the development of an early detection lameness monitoring system, utilising computer vision and computer learning methods.

Detecting and treating these issues at an early stage is beneficial to animal health and preventing severe lameness, which leads to:

  • a lower production
  • increased veterinary or treatment costs
  • reduced animal welfare
  • a higher carbon footprint.

Green Laryxine, £344,520
(Bioextractions Wales Ltd)

This project aims to create an effective treatment against Downy mildew fungal disease and reduce the use of copper based products on vineyards.

The project plans to use UK larch bark to produce an organic agrochemical to treat English vineyards and for export abroad. It will also provide a higher value outlet for larch bark for the UK timber industry.

DeCyst: factors affecting trap crop success against PCN, £183,482
(Greenvale AP Ltd)

The aim of this project is to improve on the current knowledge of ‘DeCyst’ solanaceous trap crops, and how they are best utilised for potato cyst nematode (PCN) control by potato growers in England and wider UK.

In addition to improving establishment techniques, the project aims to look at the use of new species of DeCyst trap crops. It will also look at the opportunity to grow them in between existing crops in the rotation without the need for substitution, thus unlocking the potential for use of trap crops as autumn and winter cover crops.

Together this will inform a new grower guide to DeCyst trap crops and how they fit best in an integrated approach to PCN control.

Advanced Aeroponics: supercharging horticultural productivity, £347,550
(Lettus Grow Ltd)

The project will include the design and prototype manufacture of an Advanced Aeroponic rolling bench system.

This system will be used for two trials set out to demonstrate productivity increase, flexibility of growing and the improved resource efficiency of Advanced Aeroponics (energy, labour, water, nutrients, etc).

This aims to solve grower challenges of competing on cost with imported fresh produce, while achieving net zero for the sector.

Project Crystal Ball: predict and preserve profitability of orchards, £266,754
(Yagro Ltd)

This project will integrate yield and quality estimates on the developing crops based on drone surveys, with detailed commercial intelligence.

This will provide farmers with market-level information, enabling them to understand the commercial value of their changing forecasts.

By linking data on production costs to date with quality requirements and end-market prices, they will be able to assess their current position, the need for action and the risk involved.

Development of pheromones for innovative management of forest bug, an emerging pest of orchards in England: FORBUG, £191,817
(AgroVista UK Ltd)

Project aims to identify and synthesise species-specific pheromones for forest bug that will provide innovative approaches for monitoring and controlling this pest.

In addition, the development of synthetic pheromones will make it possible to develop non-pesticidal control options in the future, including mass trapping and mating disruption.

These approaches will help reduce the need for conventional, chemical insecticides that disrupt integrated pest management programmes and potentially harm the environment.

Upcycled Foods: getting the goodness out of Kent cherries, £318,993
(Rentacherrytree Ltd)

This project will innovate agricultural food production by using cherry waste to create new foods rich in compounds with health benefits that reduce agricultural waste, increases sustainability and promotes health.

The project aims to work with the University of Kent to determine the levels of anthocyanins and their health properties, in Rentacherrytree cherry products.

HerdView: automated weight tracking for beef cattle, £152,582
(Agsenze Ltd)

The HerdView project will assess the feasibility of adapting Agsenze technology to create an automated system that gives accurate daily weights to track daily cow growth and predict weight, grade, fat information for beef cattle.

This enables farmers to better manage feeding while reducing effort and animal distress as well as reducing costs.

Growing Media for the Future: production of Sphagnum for high-quality, sustainable and peat-free substrate, £379,082
(Micropropogation Services (E.M.) Ltd)

This project will develop a method for producing Sphagnum moss at scale for commercial processing into sustainable growing media, with a particular focus on producing quality sterile growing media for vegetable seedlings, hydroponics and vertical farming.

Our growing media will enable the horticultural sector to achieve the target of eliminating peat-based composts by 2030, and could also replace rockwool.

ARWAC attack blackgrass in farming, £423,686
(ARWAC Ltd)

This project lays the foundation for next-generation robotic vehicles powered by renewable energy and tooled to control blackgrass. It drives productivity by increasing yield through weed eradication.

It contributes to net zero agriculture by reducing input waste (N or pesticides) and removing fossil fuels from key farming operations. This project will push the technology from laboratory stage to full testing in multiple farm environments.

SCARLETT: scalable, structured and resource efficient indoor robotic harvesting of lettuce, £353,375
(Jepco (Glebe) Ltd)

SCARLETT is an ambitious project that transforms how ‘produce is grown in the farm’ with ‘structure, scalability’. It simplifies the harvesting ‘workflows’ into well-defined tasks where robots can be deployed to perform ‘repetitive, laborious’ jobs with high efficiency.

SCARLETT will mitigate labour shortage faced by the industry, increase production to feed the population while being resource efficient and environment aware by redesigning of harvesting processes and embedding of robotics or artificial intelligence (AI).

Automated selective broccoli harvesting to increase grower productivity and resilience towards net zero, £393,725
(Earth Rover Ltd)

This project will take a world-leading proof of concept broccoli harvesting machine to infield testing and a pre-production prototype.

The new automated approach will harvest the whole plant, opening up the potential to create valuable and nutritious plant-based foods from what was previously seen as crop waste.

Collaborative fruit retrieval using intelligent transportation, £388,502
(Performance Projects Ltd)

The Co-FRUIT project proposes an innovative approach to harvesting-using collaborative human-robot teams. Tasks are allocated to maximise efficiency and respects the contributions of skilled human workers, demonstrating a cost-effective and efficient collaborative harvesting solution.

The project merges and advances three key technologies to demonstrate this solution:

  • an accurate and adaptive model tasks allocation
  • a responsive and safe methodology for autonomous navigation
  • a robust and affordable mobile platform.

Grain lab on a robot: autonomous, miniaturised and high-precision in-situ measurement of advanced grain parameters, £366,074
(Crover Ltd)

The scope of this feasibility study is to develop a novel non-contact sensor for non-contact grain analysis, able to detect specific molecular compounds within a radius of up to a few tens of centimetres.

This is based on a novel miniaturised sensing technology, will be integrated onto the ever-improving CROVER robot, the world’s first ‘underground drone’. This fluently ‘swims’ in grain bulks and is at the core of the CROVER autonomous Grain Storage Management system.

Bigger steps for smaller footprints towards climate positive beef, £268,081
(Dunbia UK)

This project seeks to quantify the extent of greenhouse gas emissions from a representative sample of farmer suppliers in England and across the UK, then work with them to mitigate the effects of their production systems on the environment.

The project is a collaboration with FAI Farms Limited and Promar International.

From farm to fashion: transforming agricultural waste into a sustainable leather alternative, £272,715
(Biophilica Ltd)

In this project, Biophilica will work with Minor Weir & Willis to:

  • assess their green and agricultural waste volumes
  • create plant-derived leather alternative samples from different feedstock
  • explore continuous production in pilots, to turn agricultural waste feedstocks into valuable commodities.

Top image:  Credit: taikrixel, E+ via Getty Images

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