Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

Farmers should embrace new technology to drive efficiency

There's a quiet revolution happening down on the farm as more and more producers run their businesses online, writes the Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew

In the agri-food industry technology comes in many forms, including engineering and mechanisation which have dramatically changed the face of food production.

There have been countless technical advances in food production and processing in the last 50 years.

Farmers and food producers here have always been quick to adopt technology and our food production sector is the envy of many.

However, we cannot rest, and I am confident that with support our industry will continue to lead.

I recognise that in the current economic climate the industry, like any other, faces great pressure.

But I believe that it must continue to keep abreast with the latest developments to drive efficient production at both farm and processor level.

Increasingly the technology that impacts everyone is information and communications technology, which has brought us computers and the internet.

It is an important tool in driving forward progress and my department recognises the need to embrace it. Providing farmers with efficient channels to communicate with DARD and complete their paperwork is a key part of what we do.

For example, almost 8,000 farmers have registered to use a variety of online services and many markets, abattoirs and food processing businesses are also using electronic communications to communicate with the department.

Almost 30% of all calf birth registrations are now completed online and farmers can also register deaths and movements of cattle as well as see herd lists and disease test results.

We are proud of the range of online services we offer and I continue to encourage as many farmers as possible to avail of this technology. Doing business online is faster, is available 24-hours-a-day and - because of the validation built into the systems - there is much less chance of errors.

However, the current level of uptake is lower than I would like to see and I recognise that many farmers may still lack the confidence, skills and funds to adopt new technologies.

We are striving to address these barriers through provision of local tailored training which is delivered by the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE).

The application of technological advances and introduction of mobile IT equipment has also led to improvements in our inspection processes.

This includes Single Farm Payment inspections using global positioning systems and digital mapping to accurately map and measure eligible areas, and digital pens used to capture information during hygiene inspections.

Technology used this way is helping us address some of the issues identified in the Better Regulation and Simplification Review. Better use of IT systems has also helped us to capitalise on exciting DNA scientific work by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) to provide the potential for better control and possible eradication of brucellosis in cattle.

Within the pig industry, producers and processors are using the Pig Grading Information System (PiGiS) to help quantify pig carcase quality and in turn make informed management decisions.

This online software system, developed jointly by AFBI and CAFRE, allows pig producers to assess and analyse the quality of pig carcases produced on their farm and benchmark their data with others in the industry.

The impact of technology in agriculture and rural areas has been huge and has helped us to achieve more with less. Of course, I recognise that not all technological developments have necessarily been beneficial in environmental or economic terms and consequently we need to be selective in its application.

But where the technology is proven and appropriate, I would encourage the industry to maximise the opportunities it offers.

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