#Ploughing16: Space age meets the Olympics of the land as agri-business goes hi-tech

It was the day space age met planet ploughing on the tillage fields of Scraggan.

#Ploughing16: Space age meets the Olympics of the land as agri-business goes hi-tech

It was only a matter of time before the high-tech benefits and sometimes jarring jargon of space travel research impacted on an event that has its roots in one of the oldest practices on earth — tilling the soil.

Many of the tools for precision farming including satellite guidance systems that save time and reduce production costs were on view at the 800 acre site for the first of the three-day national ploughing championships.

Crowds flocked to the rural showpiece which brought together the skills of traditional lifestyles and the wonders of modern technology that have been developed from the adventure of space travel and lunar missions.

The earthy spirit from a Munster hurling final in Thurles, the Fleadh Cheoil or Galway Races mixed with the exciting innovations of Silicon Valley and the intriguing space-speak that was unknown when JJ Bergin and Denis Allen staged the first ploughing championships 85 years ago.

“Over the Moon” aptly described the delight of visitors and organisers alike to the success of the opening day, which was favoured with fine weather and traffic that moved with no major problems as a result of an effective Garda management plan.

A few dozen cows from Tim Mannion’s herd were brought a short distance from his farm at Killyon, Birr, to a purpose build dairy on site where they were milked at their leisure by a robot, brand named Astronaut.

It was all part of a live demonstration by Lely, who produced its first robotic milking machine in 1992 and now has over 24,000 working worldwide, milking over 1.2 million cows daily.

Tim Mannion said it is great that people attending “the ploughing” have the opportunity to see at first-hand how efficient the system is and the care that is given to the cows.

“They are in a completely stress free environment and have the freedom of choice to be milked at any time of the day or night. Their overall health, condition and temperament is noticeably better.

“Our milk output has doubled and we are now producing milk on a consistent basis 12 months of the year,” he said.

Indeed the impact of technology was everywhere. Farmers could check their smartphones and know exactly what was happening at home.

Blimps, which looked like small stationary airships, hovered over the vast site for location and business promotional purposes.

Satellite guided systems were shown on farm machines and people of all ages were talking on mobile phones and taking selfies.

Devices could be consulted on everything from monitoring a field of growing barley to tracking livestock or measuring animal feed. It was the “Planet of the Apps” in earnest.

Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland and the Government’s chief scientific adviser, said experts will be providing exciting insights on the SFI stand into the smart farms of the future.

SFI obtained and revealed the views of some researchers on how precision agriculture will help make current farmland more productive.

Willie Donnelly, the president of Waterford Institute of Technology, said smart farming is increasing the quality and quantity of agricultural production using sensing technology.

“The focus in the future will be on technology which supports real time decision making systems that can provide the right solution at the right time without the need for human intervention.

“This will liberate farmers to apply their expertise to high value activities,” he said.

Laurence Shalloo, senior research officer at Teagasc, said future farms will have a greater focus on technologies that increase efficiency and sustainability.

Farms will use different technologies to manage grassland and animals, and the interaction between the two.

“There will be different pieces of farm machinery communicating directly with different stakeholders (such as suppliers and customers).

“All of this data will be integrated across various platforms, and data analytics will be used to provide real-time solutions to the farmer,” he said.

Signals coming from the machinery trade show also indicated that precision farming involving robots, satellite imaging and remote sensing will greatly transform agriculture.

That automated era will include driverless tractors being operated in fields by a person sitting at a base station miles away or with a portable controller. It will also feature drones to check land, livestock and crops.

But all of that is largely in the future. Yesterday, there were no driverless cars on the roads to Screggan and the flying of drones over the site without permission was prohibited as part of temporary restrictions imposed by the Irish Aviation Authority for safety reasons.

Motorists were even urged by gardaí to resist using their sat navs because these were likely to lead them astray due to traffic diversions.

However, there were no restrictions on the range of high-tech equipment and gadgets being used on site, not least for radio and television transmissions.

And with people spotting celebrities on trackways and stands, the event clearly risked being sub-titled the “Plough and the Stars.”

President Michael D Higgins, who launched the festival on its exciting three day orbit, brought everyone back to earth, however, when describing the championships as “the Olympics of the Land.”

But the comparisons with the space age did not entirely go away because Anna May McHugh, the guiding power behind this remarkable pageant of rural life, looked as happy at the official opening as any Nasa mission boss would be on hearing: “Houston. We have lift off.”

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