Sainsbury's is to give up to 500 of its beef farmers a computer each in a bid to boost their efficiency and cut costs.

The retailer hailed it as the first move of its kind and the most tangible evidence yet of a supermarket bridging the gap with its farmers.

It forms part of the industry-wide £1m Farm Connections project to train farmers to use and benefit from technology.

"It will enable our beef farmers and producers to exchange information with their supply chain partners and help drive down costs and improve the efficiency of British beef," Sainsbury's chief executive Justin King told the Oxford Farming Conference.

Retail beef prices rose more than 10% in 2006 as the reopening of exports pushed farmgate prices up 14p to 212p/kg deadweight.

The project would also give farmers access to data from abattoirs and information on customer habits and trends, King added.

Partners, including the Red Meat Industry Forum, Anglo Beef Processors and Defra, will fund the crucial software and training to use it. Farmers will intially learn to use email and the internet, before being introduced to farm management programmes and online buying and selling.

Other retailers were cautious of Sainsbury's move. One source described it as a stunt, adding that livestock farms were not manufacturers like P&G, and would not benefit from up-to-the-minute consumer data.

But the Red Meat Industry Forum pointed out that just 20% of British farmers used farm management software, with even fewer in the livestock sector, putting British farmers at the bottom of the European technology league.

The first computers will reach farms in April and RMIF hopes to roll the project out to other livestock farmers.