DataHarvest: delivering large-scale research field trial capabilities to the UK crop R&D sector

Lead Research Organisation: National Inst of Agricultural Botany
Department Name: Genetics and Breeding

Abstract

Research context
In recent years, much attention has focussed on the development of resources that underpin genomics and bioinformatics in key crop species. This includes funding for assembling complex crop genomes and enhanced understanding of how genes function and interact. Whilst crucial for unlocking potential productivity gains to support food security, there is now a gap in capacity for experimental field trials, undertaken at scale. Such research trial capabilities are core to delivering crop research outputs to plant breeders, growers and the wider agricultural industry.

In this proposal we request funds for a high-precision research plot combine capable of harvesting a wide range of crops, including all UK grown cereal and legume species. This will help safeguard the delivery of research field trials at the NIAB-Cambridge site for the next 5-10 years. It will underpin delivery of the diverse breadth of crop research and pre-breeding activities carried out by NIAB, routinely undertaken in partnership with other universities, institutes and industrial partners. Therefore, it will provide a highly accessible route for UK crop researchers to deliver a substantial portfolio of high-quality research to deliver outcomes aligned with BBSRC's high-level themes in 'Tackling Strategic Challenges' ('Bioscience for Sustainable Agriculture and Food') and 'Building strong Foundations' ('Infrastructure' and 'Collaboration, Partnership and Knowledge Exchange').

The equipment requested will be accessible within the context of NIAB's extensive trials facilities and associated crop research capabilities and expertise - so maximising the potential for wide uptake by the crop R&D community.

Aims and objectives
The aim of this proposal is to purchase a Haldrup C85 plot combine to support UK crop resarch with impact. The combine will be equipped with on-board near-infrared (NIR) spectrometry (the first in use in UK agricultural research), allowing on-combine measurement of grain protein content, an important criteria for determining grain quality and end use. It will also provide automated straw weighing, allowing accurate assessment of crop biomass (an important indicator of the ability of a crop to efficiently convert energy into harvestable product), and include integrated GPS functionalities for guided route planning and GPS data stamping.

Potential applications and benefits
NIAB delivers in excess of 100,000 arable and forage trial plots per year, of which 15,000 are combinable research plots. These are currently delivered using two Haldrup C85 plot combines, one of which is at the end of its replacement threshold. The requested equipment has new on-combine features not currently in use in the UK crop research sector. It will directly benefit NIAB's research delivery (currently £11 million of BBSRC investment), and catalyse access to high quality research field trials from public- and private-sector partners and collaborators.

Technical Summary

We request funds for a Haldrup C85 plot combine equipped with on-board near-infrared (NIR) spectrometry (first in use in UK agricultural research), straw weighing and GPS functionalities. A number of recent advances highlight the progress of new 'omic technologies towards delivering increased rates of genetic gain to farmers. However, without the underpinning infrastructure, proposed here, to link these technological and knowledge advances to gains in the field (interacting with and responding to the local environment and the soil), it is not currently possible to effectively integrate these opportunities to maximise outcomes for the crop breeding industry, growers and end users.

The proposed infrastructure will be used to deliver existing and new projects by NIAB and our academic and industrial collaborators under the BBSRC Strategic Plan high-level themes in 'Tackling Strategic Challenges - Bioscience for Sustainable Agriculture and Food'. By increasing the suite of traits captured by real-time data collection at harvest, it will help establish new UK standards for the collection of field-based research data, therefore supporting accelerated crop improvement. Research programmes undertaken by NIAB and its academic and/or industrial collaborators will be directly supported by the equipment, falling into five main categories:

1. NIAB Genetics & Breeding projects to increase genetic gain in UK combinable cereal crops and deliver UK public goods.
2. Industry-linked projects contributing to economic development in UK biosciences.
3. Collaborative international development projects to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
4. Cambridge Centre for Crop Science (3CS) projects: lab to field assessment of impact.
5. Statutory trials underpinning the UK crop industry.

Planned Impact

This request for the purchase of a Haldrup C85 plot combine, equipped with on-board NIR spectrometry, straw weighing and GPS functionalities will have three major beneficiaries:
1. NIAB, UK and International crop researchers, collaborators and partners.
2. The commercial private sector.
3. Wider UK stakeholders in the agri-food industry: including policy makers and the wider public.

Specifically:
1. The NIAB Crop Genetics & Breeding Department currently has 27 active BBSRC projects worth £11 million, representing significant BBSRC investment in translational crop science research. The requested plot combine will secure delivery of all current field-based projects and add significant value with new on-combine features (NIR spectrometry, straw weighing and GPS) that are not otherwise currently available. It will also secure against delays caused by the current age of our two existing Haldrup plot combines, and allow an expansion of the capacity available to academic partners. NIAB has an extensive network of contacts and collaborators in the crop R&D community. This includes all BBSRC funded institutes working in crop science (John Innes Centre, Rothamsted Research, Roslin Institute), and academics in the UK (e.g. Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, UCL) and abroad (e.g. CIMMYT, ICARDA, INRA, Wageningen University, ICRISAT). In particular, partners without large-scale UK trialling capacity will benefit through access to state-of-the-art harvest data including NIR spectrometry and whole crop biomass weighing.

2. A number of private sector partners will benefit from the provision of this combine as a component of NIAB research trialling. This includes commercial plant breeders (NIAB has current projects with BASF, DSV UK, Elsoms Seeds, KWS UK, Limagrain, RAGT Seeds Ltd., Saaten Union) who will benefit from a higher density, throughput and quality of data from collaborative research trials. End-users (NIAB has current projects with Pepsico and Nestlé) are beming increasingly engaged with applied crop research, and the added functionality (particularly NIR recording in real-time at harvest) will add value to collaborative projects.

3. The purchase of this Haldrup C85 combine plays a small but important role in progressing data-driven agricultural R&D in line with the recently introduced Agriculture Bill. The project also provides an ideal opportunity to communicate the issues around sustainable intensification to a wider public audience and to engage the general with the topic of food security. Demonstration of a large piece of agricultural machinery supporting translational crop research provides a good back-drop for engaging the public in issues around sustainable food production and implementing agricultural policy.

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