Dave Bell’s phone buzzes, and he confidently rejects the call. It’s been a busy 24 hours – 20mm of rain the evening before provided the ideal conditions to lift some of his early potato crop, then the cattle were sorted that very morning, and cereal harvest is due to get underway at any moment.
So is he wise to ignore what could be a crucial phone call? “I like to strength test my business,” he explains. “I should have the space and the time to be able to step back and take a wider perspective whenever the opportunity arises, do some blue-sky thinking, rather than be caught up in the day-to-day activity.”
Based at Colinsburgh in Fife, E Scotland, Fairfield Farms comprises 1200ha with a fully integrated mix of enterprises in what Dave calls a “full cycle system”. Predominantly, there’s a beef suckler herd with 300 spring calvers that graze the more marginal and sensitive land, as well as leys on the better ground.
The cattle bring enrichment in the form of around 5000t of manure to the 600ha of arable crops on the farm’s sandy soils, with a varying degree of other mineral soils mixed in, which rise to 200m above sea level. Wheat and spring barley are the main crops, grown in equal measure, with 50ha of potatoes, then winter barley and peas also slotted in. Land is owned, rented, contract farmed and taken on seasonal tenancies. “There are lots of agreements, so I’m quite an administrator,” he says.
“I also view the environment as a crucial aspect. I’m looking to gear the business to make wider use of the support we currently receive, and I view public goods as a distinct enterprise.”
Within this mix, Dave looks for the focus on detail and progression that will future proof the business and ensure it’s less reliant on public support. But he doesn’t want to be a hostage to the minutiae of day-to-day decisions that entail. It’s why the opportunity to be involved in the pilot of xarvio Field Manager, the new digital farming product from BASF, was a step he was keen to take.
“It also fits with the important challenge of Integrated Crop Management. This is something I believe growers have been doing for years, but there’s an increasing requirement for us to demonstrate this and include it in every aspect of what we do. The way the algorithms in xarvio support decisions, based on real-time, actual data, delivers on that strategic aim.”
Dave’s also on the AHDB Cereals and Oilseeds Research and Knowledge Exchange committee and one of Oxford Farming Conference’s Emerging Leaders. “I’m keen to represent farmers and levy payers, and I’m the only independent Scottish farmer on the committee. This move to digital is important for farming – we need to get it right.”
Field Manager is the second of a suite of products rolled out by xarvio and follows on from its scouting app released earlier this year. Due for launch in spring next year, it could be seen as a significant step for crop production, not least because it’s the first digital farming product to be launched by a major agchem manufacturer in the UK.
“Field Manager is designed to aid decision-making from drilling right through to harvest,” explains Louis Wells, UK solutions and services manager at BASF. “It applies weather, satellite and other third-party data to information entered about your crop to model growth, disease and pest development specific to the crop and variety in your field.”
Much of the €200M development behind xarvio was carried out by Bayer, with the European farmer in mind, before BASF acquired the suite of tools – under EU merger rules, Bayer was required to divest xarvio last year following its purchase of Monsanto. Since then, BASF has brought it to the UK, and the xarvio team has been working with 14 farmers, two of whom are based in Scotland, to develop Field Manager, currently a pilot version, into a fully fledged independent crop production optimization system.
“It’s a lot more than technical support and back-up we’re providing,” explains xarvio agronomist Anna Crockford, who has been co-ordinating the farmer triallists. “We’ve been running complementary trials with ADAS to ensure we have relevant, UK-based datasets behind the platform.
“We’re doing 26 tramline and field-scale trials with the farmers, using ADAS Agronomics to test Zone Spray. Similar testing has been carried out over Europe for the past two years, so this is to refine the package to UK conditions.”
Designed to be user-friendly, there are several options to setting up the system: importing a shape file of your fields from other software is one favoured by those using variable rate and auto shut-off, she notes. For his trial field, Dave has used the software’s in-built feature that captures a field boundary from Google Maps. “It was really very simple to set up, although if I was using it for the whole farm, I would probably import the field maps,” he says.
He’s used all features of the software, including Zone Spray, applying both his T1 and T2 sprays at variable rate. “For me, it’s not about saving money but putting inputs in the right place. Success would be an even field and a uniform yield map.”
The applications didn’t go entirely to plan, however. “It took me a while to set up the variable rate T1 application – there were a few changes I had to make to the in-cab controller, with the help of the xarvio terminal support team. By the time the T2 timing came around, it was a much smoother operation.”
There’s a team of 200 behind xarvio around the world, working away on the algorithms and constantly refining the package, reveals Anna. “Feedback is a very important aspect of how xarvio develops. As well as co-ordinating results from the trials, we rely on the involvement of the trial farmers to refine the usability of the system.”
xarvio is quite different from other BASF products in this respect, she explains. “It’s currently being used over 30,000ha in the UK, including on each of the 14 farms. Although it’s taken some time to get this stage, unlike a conventional farm input, the service will continue to evolve and improve. That’s why building a community of users is very important to us.”
And this is the essential element that’s new with digital solutions, and one that Louis believes offers real prospects to progress arable systems. “It’s the learning together that counts. We want xarvio to be the basis of a two-way discussion as we explore the use of innovations and new practices in agriculture.”
The data sharing is important to improve the algorithms, he adds. “The more farmers interact with xarvio, the more useful it will become. Equally, building trust is important for us, so growers retain rights over their own data. This is held strictly within xarvio, which operates as a separate entity to BASF’s crop protection business.”
But xarvio benefits from BASF via the company’s inherent knowledge of crop production. “There can be few companies that have BASF’s wealth of knowledge and detail on tailoring fungicides or PGR precisely to crop growth stage and leaf cover. We’re confident that the recommendations Zone Spray provides – an average 15% reduction in dose rate – maintain levels both of stewardship and disease protection because they’re directly related to leaf cover. What’s more, BASF did the fundamental research that formed the label recommendations in the first place,” says Louis.
“xarvio cannot replace chemistry, nor the everyday agronomy decisions, but we believe it will help put the chemistry where it’s needed and reduce reliance on it, freeing up the farmer and agronomist to make important strategic decisions.”
Which is where the benefit comes in for Dave in trialling the system. “I don’t like the phrase trial and error – this is trial and progression. The important aspect is to learn how to use these tools while actives are still available, so we can confidently progress our business as the chemistry becomes more limited,” he notes.
What is xarvio Field Manager?
It’s a web and smartphone app-based crop production optimisation system, designed to help you make the right decision on when and how to treat your crops (currently wheat, barley and oilseed rape). There are three modules:
This a field-specific service that takes in information you enter about variety, drilling date, etc, and pops it through a clever algorithm that brings in local weather data and crop-growth information to advise on if, and when to spray to protect your crop most efficiently. The impressively neat bit is that it factors in what field management tasks you’ve already performed.
The dashboard displays your fields, colour-coded on a traffic-light system:
- Green indicates all okay – you can take in that sneaky holiday.
- Yellow is medium risk – make sure you have the spray in store.
- Red indicates time to get the sprayer out.
Fields are also flagged by priority – a purple xarvio symbol denotes ideal timing, while a white symbol indicates the best timing has already been compromised.
The algorithm uses crop-growth modelling to determine the growth stage of your crop, which is adjusted for your location and local weather. It also takes account of variety and drilling date when determining whether a crop’s at risk. Not only that, but it factors in what you’ve already used, and the drop-down menus contain a comprehensive line-up of products, including generics and competing brands to the BASF products.
If your field walking (or agronomist’s information) has found the growth stage isn’t correct you can manually adjust it and Spray Timer will recalculate your risk rating.
While disease and lodging risk are the priorities in cereal crops, Spray Timer’s more focused on pest pressure when it comes to oilseed rape. So this feeds in risk of damage from pollen beetle and seed weevil, based on pest models and adjusted for local weather and real-time information on pest pressure.
This pulls satellite imagery into your dashboard during the season to give you an idea of biomass cover, and also leaf area index, based on normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI). The information is useful for in-season monitoring, such as to tell whether variable applications of seed and/or fertiliser have evened up a crop, and to relate biomass scans to yield maps.
Weather permitting, a new map for your fields is delivered with intervals of a few days, while Power Zone is said to be unique to Field Monitor – it calculates the field’s potential by zone, based on combining up to 15 years’ historical biomass development maps. With the hourly weather forecast brought in to determine best condition of field management activities, Field Monitor allows a more precise management to be brought to field-zone level.
A step on from Field Monitor, this makes use of the biomass maps and gives you a variable-rate application map, allowing you to adjust fungicide and/or growth regulator based on crop cover. Like Spray Timer, the module builds in information on previous applications and current disease pressure to determine rate but will only give variable maps for applications of BASF products, as these are currently the only ones supported at the adjusted rates.
The way it works is to make an adjustment of applied water volume, based on crop cover, and the module varies the application based on the BASF product used. This means when applying a tank-mix, all products in the tank are adjusted together, which may limit flexibility. Safeguards within the module ensure statutory label rates and concentrations are not compromised, but with the variable application based on the BASF input, the performance of tank-mix partners is at the user’s risk.
Assistant in your pocket becomes scout in the field
Load up photos you’ve snapped of anomalies in the field, and xarvio Scouting can help you identify what it is that’s stressing your crop. The app is available for free for both iOS and Android phones and there are five tools to which you can beam your problem photos:
- Weed Identification can currently identify 117 different broadleaf weeds, while the aim is to build this to 800. Within seconds the app will feed back which weed it is with a percentage confidence rating.
- Yellow Trap Analysis will assess the contents of a standard in-field water trap and can tell the difference between cabbage stem flea beetle, seed weevil and pollen beetle, for example, giving you numbers found of each.
- Disease Recognition identifies most diseases in wheat and barley, and many other crops although not yet rhynchosporium.
Supplied by xarvio, by Tom Allen-Stevens, CPM Magazine