Smart farm

At the University of Leeds Research Farm, we work with academic and industry partners from across the UK to co-develop high-quality research programmes that address modern agricultural challenges.

Virtual tour

Take a 3D tour of the smart farm facilities

The farm operates commercially, generating income from arable and livestock operations. 

Farmers and agri-businesses are under immense pressure to meet the changing needs of our planet and the expectations of regulators, consumers, and food processors and retailers. The challenges they face are wide-ranging and increasing, and include political and climate changes, fluctuating trading patterns and the need to increase efficiency and productivity without compromising the health of crops and livestock. 

Academics from the University are working with industry partners to provide innovative, multi-discipline, systems-based solutions to help navigate these complex future challenges for the sustainable development of global food production. 

We take a ‘whole systems’ approach to agricultural and livestock research and are continually investing in new facilities and instrumentation to improve farming practice, drawing together sophisticated monitoring and data management systems.

The farm is home to:

  • The University of Leeds Terrestrial Observatory, a £3 million suite of instrumentation and research tools that forms part of the Global Food and Environment Institute. 
  • Our Smart Agri-Systems programme, designed to provide insights into farming practice which will help businesses develop their competitive advantage and navigate complex global food production markets.
  • The National Pig Centre, part of the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL). 
  • One of 10 regional centres for the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), a large international centre for plant science, crop evaluation and agronomy. NIAB carry out a number of field trials testing varieties of grass and wheat at the Farm. 

The farm also supports expanding undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and research programmes, offering a rich variety of fieldwork opportunities.

Technologies at the farm

The University of Leeds Research Farm Terrestrial Observatory is a £3 million suite of instrumentation and research tools based on the arable farm operation and linked to a global observatory network. 

It is a large-scale outdoor laboratory that forms part of the University’s Global Food and Environment Institute and supports the Smart Agri-Systems research programme. Find out more by downloading our brochure about Smart Agri-Systems (PDF).

We are installing:

  • Soil moisture and water sensors. These are distributed across the fields to measure water within the soil and moisture take up by plants.
  • Agricultural robotics. We are investing in a number of technologies to investigate how robotics can be used in food production, including crop management, environmental monitoring, harvesting, sorting and packaging. 
  • Flux towers. These measure greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide) across different land uses throughout the growing season.
  • Advanced Lysimeter Facility. These are a series of eight buried soil cores enabling detailed study of plant-soil-water processes.
  • Mesocosm pilot facilities. These are for controlled experimentation of plant-soil-water systems.
  • Boreholes for groundwater pollution and water-supply monitoring. These 30m-deep holes enable us to investigate how farming practices such as fertiliser application affects water as it enters the groundwater supply and transports nutrients and pollution through into rivers.
  • Digital technologies for data capture, transmission and computational processing of the diverse streams of information coming from the instrumentation and farming activities. These will track the arable farming system not only at the land surface but also from the groundwater under the site, through the soil layer and vegetation and into the lower atmosphere. 
  • (Coming soon in 2023) Atmospheric observatory. A critical mass of atmospheric and climate science expertise at the University of Leeds will enable us to build an advanced atmospheric observatory including a drone-launching site, and radar facilities.

These technologies are used to study how humans interact with Earth's 'critical zone': the thin surface layer of the planet that is critical for sustaining life and extends from the bedrock and groundwater to the top of vegetation and lower atmospheric layer. 

The facility enables us to test new crops, agricultural practices and innovative farming systems. Alongside fundamental research, we can also test how these new techniques and technologies can be used to help produce food and create value for farm businesses.

It enables us to study the impact agriculture might have on environmental change such as greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, land degradation, soil improvement and water quality.

The capability captures high density and high-frequency measurements of agricultural and environmental variables that are central to the research and innovation design of the facility.

The facility also includes two externally managed facilities:

  • A weather station, managed by the Met Office. This accurately measures rainfall, and also contains instruments to measure pollution and temperature. 
  • An atmospheric monitoring station called COSMOS – this is run by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, a BBSRC-funded research centre. 

Site characteristics

The farm is located between Leeds and York, covering approximately 317 hectares, bringing together four farmsteads. 

Currently, about 75% of the land is used for arable farming, including wheat, barley and oil seed rape. There are smaller plots used for potatoes and peas. A small number of agroforestry plots are located across the farm, covering 7.7 hectares. 

The site’s elevation ranges from 42 to 70 metres above sea level. 

Soils are typically shallow (less than 50cm deep across large areas) well-drained, calcareous, fine loamy soils (Aberford Series) lying above a dolstone aquifer of the Cadeby Formation. 

The climate is typical of the region. Due to its position in the rain shadow of the Pennines, the site has relatively low annual rainfall, mild winters and cool summers. 

The annual average rainfall is 674mm, with August being the wettest month (65.9mm) and February the driest (46mm). 

Average temperatures range from a low of 4°C in January to a high of 16°C in August, with an annual average temperature of 9°C. The average minimum daily temperature between December and February is below freezing. 

Working with business 

The aim of Smart Agri-Systems is to offer practical solutions to agricultural businesses that need support to expand or meet modern challenges.  

Examples include: 

  • On the farm: Sensors – either fixed, or on drones and robotic crawlers – can monitor soil temperature and humidity, map crop growth and density, assess ground water composition, and track the weather, with data analysed to project crop performance. 
  • Livestock production: Genomics data can be combined with real-time sensor outputs on environmental conditions, growth rates, feed consumption, and animal behaviour and health. 
  • Beyond the farm: Combining data and expertise on supply chains and logistics, consumer behaviour, health outcomes, environmental monitoring, international law, trade and business to provide sustainable whole system solutions. 

Farm education and professional development

The farm supports undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and research.

Students of the Sustainable Food Systems MSc, which looks at developing solutions to the challenges faced by our complex global food system, may be offered off-campus learning opportunities through collaboration with commercial partners as part of their dissertation module. 

As part of taught undergraduate modules, students may tour the farm and undergo short research projects. All livestock PhD students are encouraged to become members of the British Society of Animal Science and to present their work at both national and international conferences as well as to industry partners.

Our additional areas of research

Contact us   

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