Using the newly launched Environmental Planner tool, dairy farmers will—for the first time—be able to make science-based decisions on which agri-environment options to introduce on farms, and identify where sustainability initiatives are likely to perform best.
The tool is able to analyse satellite imagery and environmental datasets for selected Arla farms, assessing the suitability of unproductive or hard-to-farm areas of land for four agri-environment interventions. These are: planting flower-rich pollinator habitats; creating woodland; protecting water resources from pollution; and sowing winter bird food. The Arla farms additionally trialled wet grassland restoration and grassland productivity mapping. In practice, this will mean farmers can gauge the likelihood of success of the different environmental interventions across their farmland and select the most suitable areas to enhance. The tool works by calculating environmental factors that affect the suitability of the land for different environmental options, such as proximity to watercourses, south facing slopes or shading.
David Christensen has been one of Arla’s farmer owners testing the technology at the Arla UK 360 innovation farm. He explains: “The E-Planner tool is really helping to modernise the way we make management decisions for land that might have been previously considered unproductive in terms of sustainability and resilience. At the click of a button, we’re able to look at how the land behaves over time and can therefore make more educated decisions on how best to use all areas of the farm at key times of the year. It’s going to make an enormous difference to many farmers and the world around us.”
The potential impacts of empowering farmers with the new technology and information are enormous for achieving sustainability. While Arla’s dairy farmers have, in line with agriculture policy, implemented environmental measures for some time, access to scientific data and technology has traditionally favoured arable farmers. In testing and adapting UKCEH’s tool for dairy farmers, the challenges specific to dairy farming and field management can be addressed.
Graham Wilkinson, Agricultural Director at Arla Foods adds: “Farmers simply can’t be expected to automatically know which environmental measures best suit the land around them. With environmental measures on farm compulsory for all of Arla’s dairy farmers, we hope that in working with the scientists at UKCEH we can ensure that they have access to the tools and resources that enable the best decisions. Trials and application of technology like this are just one of the ways the Arla UK 360 programme is revolutionising our industry; on farm and through collaborative working practices.”-
The changes will not only serve farmers on an individual basis, but also feed into national sustainable farming targets. The identified agri-environment options are expected to attract farming subsidy under the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, a scheme that replaces the Common Agriculture Policy.
John Redhead, Senior Spatial Ecologist, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), who led the development of the E-Planner tool, says: “This is a big step forward in how we can advise farmers about environmental decisions. Historically, it’s always been a challenge to bring together environmental information from digital data and farmer-specific local knowledge. The great thing about the E-Planner tool is its ability to present complex and detailed environmental information in a way that’s easy for farmers to access and explore , enabling them to make the best possible decisions.”
On completion of the trial, Arla will be looking to make the revised tool available to all its 360 farmers with a longer-term plan to share with all Arla dairy farmers. In addition to the technology, Arla has recently shared factsheets with farmers, developed with the support of scientists and agronomists which help farmers see best practice and share knowledge on how to implement environmental measures.