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.

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

One of the key goals of the farm is to offer businesses practical solutions to address the challenges they face.

We take a ‘whole systems’ approach to agricultural and livestock research. We are 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 with 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.

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.
  • Atmospheric observatory. A critical mass of atmospheric and climate science expertise at the University of Leeds has enabled us to build an advanced atmospheric observatory including a drone-launching site, and radar facilities.
  • 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. 

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 green-house 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 a 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.

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. PhD students associated with the pig farming, behaviour and welfare undergo a three week training programme on the unit and receive additional training throughout their studentship to support their research.

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.

We welcome individuals interested in pursuing masters-level industry training and offer continuing professional development programmes in partnership with employers, including training in the use of new technologies that we are operating on the farm.

Our other areas of research

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