The two most recent meetings of our local agricultural discussion societies, at Kelso and Lauder, featured developments in research and technology in the sheep and cropping sectors.

I understood the parts about sheep reasonably well as that’s what we do. But as someone who finds mobile phone banking awkward and whose mental image of a robot is The Tin Man, the advances in cropping were a revelation.

Astronauts dropping micro-satellites the size of a Coke can through the floor of the mother ship which can take photos from space so detailed that you can count individual tattie plants in a field were, for me, a new world.

The speaker at Kelso, Dave Ross, is researching future farming systems with the SRUC. He is also the CEO of the Agri-Epi Centre which develops applied R and D and also training and education about precision agriculture at farms throughout the country. Two of these are in The Borders.

The speaker at Lauder, Jim Wilson, of Soil Essentials, is using futuristic methods on his own farm near Brechin. His company markets equipment and advice which helps arable and grassland farmers monitor and manage their crops through a range of integrated technologies.

These are based initially on soil sampling and thereafter through monitoring from the sky using satellites and drones. The information is transferred via the internet and then interpreted on farm to cut costs, raise production levels and hopefully increase profits.

Always in the past, when I have asked those in the know whether satellites and their application in the field have led to increased profitability, the answer has been 'no'. Converting the data into yield increases or cost savings has, even for those with above average IT skills, been difficult.

Slow broadband speeds in rural areas are seriously hampering progress. Nevertheless, targeting application of lime, fertilisers and pesticides rather than blanket coverage makes sense.

It may even have environmental benefits at a time when these have political kudos. Hopefully, the corner is at last being turned.

At Kelso, Joanne Connington, a livestock geneticist with the SRUC, outlined new genetic and genomic research and also technologies for the improvement of resistance to footrot and mastitis in sheep and goats. She talked about ongoing and never more relevant research into lamb survival, longevity and maternal efficiency with pointers on how these can be developed through breeding.

At Lauder, Hazel Laughton, also from SRUC, told her audience – many of whom were familiar with the mandatory aspect of EID in sheep – how this could be extended from merely enabling traceability into a potent tool to save time, lower stress and optimise labour in drafting, health management and selection for market or for breeding.

Of particular interest is the recent publication of the preliminary results of the Signet Ramcompare project. This is the largest ever ovine progeny test in the UK.

It progeny tests, for a variety of traits, rams from five breeds on six large commercial flocks in different parts of the country. The breeds involved are Charollais, Hampshire, Meatlinc, Suffolk and the Texel.

Over three years, 360 rams were used through natural service and 180 through AI. An enormous amount of data was collected about lambing, performance at pasture and carcase slaughter. The results obtained from 6000 lambs born in 2015 and 2016 have just been published and an update for a further 1500 born in 2017 will appear in May, 2018.

These can be sourced on and the project now moves into its second three-year phase, involving eight commercial flocks.

Interesting as the results to date are, some fine tuning in the selection of the rams used would be beneficial. In the first phase, rams in the top 1% of a breed have been compared with rams in the top 25% of another breed.

In effect, this is comparing rams at an elite level with thousands of only just above average genetic merit and is unrealistic. All rams must be of a similar genetic merit in their breed for the information to be of value to the industry.

The pedigree breeder, already committed, wants to locate the absolute top rams in his/her breed and the commercial breeder wants to know which breed of ram, when used at home, will lead to cost and labour savings and increased prices at market.

It must be high priority for each participating breed society to ensure that only the best representatives of their breed are used. The incentive for ram owners to allow their rams to be used in the trial is that those which do well, in what is undoubtedly the best comparison ever made in the UK, will be rewarded by enhanced prices for rams at auction and increased semen sales.

In phase two, Signet should select some of the rams using their own criteria and the breed societies should be asked to nominate a similar number of rams which they feel will represent their breed to best advantage.

Incidentally, my outdated stereotype of a robot as a mechanical human is not uncommon. In the 1920s, when the idea of machines doing humanity’s dirty work evolved, the main stumbling block to progress was the criterion that robots should be mechanical people and the subsequent fear that they would take over the world.

In 1930, Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing advertised Katrina, the mechanical wonder maid. “Katrina talks, answers the phone, runs a vacuum cleaner, makes coffee and toast, turns the lights on and off and does it all willingly at the command of Mr T Barnard, the Westinghouse expert.”

That same year, the first robot with an agricultural application was invented by the scientist, Samuel Montgomery Kintner. He advertised it, in those less politically correct times, as “a black labourer called Rastus”.