Farmer Focus – Thomas Gent

How I think I can achieve scalable no till organic farming

Nov 2023

In my opinion the Holy Grail of farming is to find a way both to use no till drilling methods and achieve a conventional farm level of yield with no artificial inputs. One sunny summer evening, this was something I was discussing with my dad and contemplating if it were even possible.

One idea is to use cover crops to fix nitrogen and then crimp them to be able to plant the next cash crop.  The problem with this of course is you can’t crimp blackgrass and you can’t rely on being able to drill a good cover crop straight after harvest as the dry summer of last year taught us all. The other problem with all rotational cropping is the minimal amount of time the roots are in the ground and therefore the effect they can have in turn on the soil is limited.

The ideal we discussed would be to have a constant understorey of clover that would act both as a nitrogen fixing cover crop when there was no cash crop growing and, if you could get it to grow thick enough, a weed-suppressing layer. The tricky and costly thing is to get a clover established well. Once you have done that you then need to plant your wheat crop into the growing clover crop and somehow control the clover so that the wheat crop can flourish. So I chimed in with a random idea about robot lawn mowers – surely we could get one of them and just run it through the wheat crop and it would mow the clover, effectively strip cropping.

Roll on about 6 months later and we are delighted to be working closely with and Kristof Hayes. They are a team looking to bring practical, simple and usable robotic solutions on farm. As I write this I have just been notified by DHL that our robotic platform coming in from California will arrive this week, the first one to be delivered to Europe. We are planning to fit several different implements to the robot platform and test its capabilities.

Having been at Agritechnica I have to say I was slightly underwhelmed by the lack of really good innovation in the robotics sector. Everyone seems to be either over complicating it, making giant (expensive) tractor-sized robots or stuck in the research phase. There is a concern in my mind that there are large scale robotics being developed that will bring huge revolutions to large agro holdings with hundreds of thousands of hectares to farm. This will I am sure revolutionise how commodity food crops are produced and bring great strides in cost reduction and quality increases. However they will be unusable here in the UK making our scale of farming even less competitive globally.

From my admittedly limited experience and knowledge it does seem however that there is an opportunity for UK farmers to do what we do best – test robotic systems out in the field, let them get dirty, and find ways to bodge them together to make them work. If we can find simple and practical applications for robotics this will be very useful for farming. Robotics need not be something only available to universities and large corporate farms. I can already see a future where they are out on my farm performing a huge range of tasks in a simple, uncomplicated way.