As featured in Arable Farming Magazine
Putting tech to the test
by Arable Farming Nov/Dec 2020 issue
Digital agronomy platforms are gaining ground as a way of providing access to, and connecting, innovative new tech tools. Teresa Rush caught up with UK growers involved in the development of two of the platforms currently available.
With the pace of agri-tech development occurring 10 times faster than traditional input development, growers are faced with a rapidly expanding array of new technologies promising a range of benefits.
The challenge for farm businesses is to identify which of these new products and services will enhance farm business performance, be that measured in financial returns, time saving or, increasingly, in terms of environmental benefits.
Digital platforms, including Omnia, xarvio, Rhiza and Climate FieldView, are facilitating adoption of some of these new tools and have made big advances in recent years in terms of functionality and connectivity, in many cases with a significant degree of grower involvement.
Suffolk farmer Tom Jewers is one of these growers and in early October was announced as host farmer for the Hutchinsons Helix East demonstration farm.
Helix East joins the agronomy business’ national Helix National Development Farm, launched 18 months ago and hosted by Northamptonshire farmers Andrew and William Pitts.
Mr Jewers farms in partnership with his parents at Wood Hall Farm, Rattlesden, near Stowmarket in Suffolk.
The all combinable crops business extends to 385 hectares, of which 260ha are owned and 125ha are contract farmed.
While Hutchinsons’ Omnia precision farming system is central to the Helix aim of ‘adding value through delivering technology with advice’, it was the platform’s cost of production mapping tool that drew Mr Jewers’ attention.
He says: “One of my principal reasons, before Helix, of changing to Omnia, was that I have got a Hutchinsons agronomist; it makes better use of him because he can use this system with me.
But, when we were looking at the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, I wanted to use the performance mapping tool and Omnia was streets ahead of anything else.” Using the tool, Mr Jewers was able to collate several years’ worth of crop yield and input data to generate predicted net margin information.
“We could then build a performance map, so rather than looking at one year in isolation, we could produce a map showing, for example, areas which were consistently poor,” he says.
Using the performance mapping tool he identified a number of areas of the farm which were consistently low yielding and these have now been taken out of production and entered into a Countryside Stewardship Mid Tier scheme.
In other areas, the situation was less clear cut.
“But we can now look at ways of improving these areas perhaps by putting on more seed,” says Mr Jewers.
He is also making use of several other tools available within Omnia, including Terramap soil conductivity scanning, which he is using to inform variable rate drilling; variable rate fertiliser application through the nutrition module and fine tuning of fertiliser and crop protection inputs using the climate module.
The latter proved a particularly useful tool last season.
“We had a very dry spring and we were looking at fertiliser application decisions.
By April 20 there was no moisture left in the top 10cm of soil, so instead of shoving on fertiliser regardless, which would not be used by the crop and would wash out into the watercourses at a later date, we had a useful tool for refining our N applications.” Mr Jewers also uses the climate module in conjunction with Omnia’s growth model to help inform fungicide timings.
This might, for example, reveal that the T1 timing is set to coincide with a forecast of windy weather.
If disease is present, the decision can then be made to bring the planned fungicide application forward by a few days, if weather conditions then are more suitable for spraying
Making decision-making simpler
BASF’s xarvio precision farming system was launched in the UK at LAMMA 2020 and its development is supported by a network of farmers across the UK.
Among them is Graham Willoughby, farm manager at Strutt and Parker-managed Maces Farm, Saffron Walden, Essex, who has been using the xarvio scouting app and Field Manager module.
Also involved in trialling xarvio alongside Mr Willoughby is Strutt and Parker partner Jock Willmott, who is the national technical lead for the Strutt and Parker farming team, as well as having direct farm management and consultancy responsibilities across Essex, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire.
Maces Farm is on consistent, well-drained, yieldresponsive soils, with a rotation of combinable crops, including milling wheat, and sugar beet.
The ambition is to keep it profitable, says Mr Willmott.
Technology currently used on the farm includes two weather stations, providing real-time data, with the aim over time of correlating yields with weather data.
GPS steering on tractors and combine facilitates yield mapping and variable rate applications of P and K.
The farm is now in its seventh year of variable rate drilling.
“We haven’t persevered with drones or variable rate nitrogen,” Mr Willmott says.
He adds: “There is a lot of tech out there and it all comes with a price, not least in terms of the time it takes to enter all the data.
“For us, if it gets on the farm it has got to justify its place; it’s got to show a positive impact, either in time saving or adding to the bottom line.” While keeping a tight rein on costs and maintaining output remain key targets, pressure on farm businesses to improve their environmental performance is just around the corner, says Mr Willmott.
Technology has a role to play in responding to this, he believes.
“One of the things we are conscious of is that someday down the road being a BASISqualified adviser may not be enough to justify what you are doing in terms of crop inputs.
“To have credible software which you can call on to justify these might add credence to your decisions.
That’s the challenge and that is why we are putting xarvio to the test.
“If you take last year, when yields were high and this year, when yields are probably the worst Mr Willoughby and I have seen in our lifetimes, you need to have confidence to push or pull back on inputs and if we can use Disease Manager to spot that there is no chance of septoria coming, for example, it gives us the chance to pull back on fungicides and that’s where we can make some significant cost savings.” Mr Willoughby adds: “We’ve had a very good experience with the software so far.
When we are crop walking, we walk different routes on different parts of the farm yet we still don’t cover all 1,000 hectares.
The sprayer operator also sees things we don’t see.
“Field Manager means we can all record our observations and share them, so we’ve all got a complete picture, all of the time.
In bringing all our information together, xarvio is making our decision-making processes easier, simpler and more accurate.” Whether any one platform can ever meet all growers’ requirements remains to be seen but involving growers in the development of new technologies will at least help to ensure they are relevant and have real value.