Precision farming education gets £3.4m boost at Yorkshire colleges Bishop Burton and Askham Bryan

Agriculture student Laura Isherwood, 17, with a British Blue X Holstein calf at Askham Bryan College. Picture by Kate Mallender.
Agriculture student Laura Isherwood, 17, with a British Blue X Holstein calf at Askham Bryan College. Picture by Kate Mallender.
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A new generation of digital-savvy agriculturalists will be equipped with the skills they need to embrace game-changing technology for farming thanks to a £3.4m investment.

Yorkshire leaders in agricultural education, Askham Bryan College near York and Bishop Burton College near Beverley, have been awarded a share of £10m in government funds as part of a new Institute of Technology in the county, led by York College and focused on the agri-tech, engineering, manufacturing and digital sectors.

The two agricultural colleges are taking the lead on the agri-tech element and this means the colleges’ own farms will be upgraded to give students use of precision farming technology.

Askham Bryan will invest around £1.7m to build and equip a new purpose-built beef livestock centre which will be used to showcase precision livestock farming at the college’s Westfield Farm. It will operate as a beef finishing and calf rearing facility and the latest digital equipment will mean real time data – accessible by smart phone – will inform the farm’s management and lessons with students.

The college’s existing beef unit will also be refurbished and an additional classroom and car park will be built.

At Bishop Burton, the same sum will be invested in a new training facility and new machinery to give students access to precision farming technology tailored specifically for arable farming, such as GPS-guided auto-steer vehicles and real-time changes to chemical applications.

By giving students access to the latest kit, the investments have the potential to address a skills shortage in agriculture that needs to be addressed to ensure more food can be produced with less inputs in the future, said Bill Meredith, chief executive and principal of Bishop Burton College.

“It’s going to be great to have all the latest equipment and digital infrastructure to support these systems, not only to drive up the skills of our own students who could go on to become new entrants to farming, but providing skills for existing farmers and the wider agri-workforce throughout Yorkshire.”

Precision technology in farming is not brand new but take-up is not yet widespread. Mr Meredith said the benefits of its adoption are clear.

“It has the potential to allow us to produce more for less, reduce our input costs and allow for more precise applications of fertilisers, reducing our environmental impact, all in the context of a growing world. Globally, it is estimated that we need to produce 60 per cent more food by 2050.”

A skills gap and high capital costs mean precision farming technology has yet to be adopted widely, he said.

“The technology is there but it is not being intensively adopted so we are not reaping the full benefits and that is partly because of a serious skills shortage out there.”

Askham Bryan College’s chief executive, Catherine Dixon, said she was keen for her students to grasp the potential of data to transform farming practices.

“What we are trying to teach here is the future of farming and the very best practice to our students, and for them to understand the importance of data and how they can use it to make the right decisions to drive efficiency and productivity on farm.”

The investment at Askham Bryan is “tremendous news” for both the college and the future of agriculture in Yorkshire and beyond, Ms Dixon said.

“Farming is a highly technical and exciting industry and our young people will have a wonderful livestock centre with cutting edge technology to ensure that they are at the forefront of industry innovation.

“This funding will greatly assist us in further developing highly skilled, technically adept students and complements our most recent work creating the digital farm for our dairy cattle and our agri-business centre.

“We will be looking at a digital classroom, data management systems, thinking about animal welfare which is so important to us – such as transponders on calves’ necks to monitor their food intake and growth. It’s not about taking away traditional farming but enhancing it – that’s the future of farming.”

The investment at Askham Bryan was welcomed by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society and the National Farmers’ Union.

The Society’s show director Charles Mills, a former Askham Bryan student who farms near York, said the investment at the college was “great news for the future of our industry”, while Adam Bedford, regional director of the National Farmers’ Union who also previously studied at Askham Bryan, said the college’s new facilities “will help ensure that the next generation of Yorkshire farmers will be leading the charge to develop the productive, innovative and sustainable farm businesses of the future”.

Background

Twelve institutes of technology specialising in delivering higher level technical training in STEM subjects will be created around the country as part of the Government’s overall £170m investment.

Universities, further education colleges and employers are collaborating to form the institutes.

Yorkshire’s institute is being led by York College which has teamed up with Askham Bryan and Bishop Burton, as well as Craven College, East Riding College, Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education, Selby College, the University of Hull and York St John University.

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