Peter Nickols farms in partnership as D.E. Nickols and Sons with his cousin and nephew at Willow Farm, Lincolnshire.
The business has been gradually changing its cultivation strategy from a ploughbased system to minimumtillage with the aim of improving soil health but time was proving to be a constraint.
“The soil ranges from sandy loams to heavy clays, and we have everything in between.
We wanted to reduce stress on the soil by moving to a very low- or zero-till system, but we were also conscious that this would take time, so we have looked for ways to time save in other areas,” Mr Nickols explains.
The farm extends to 430 hectares with half dedicated to winter wheat.
This is complemented by a mixture of break crops including oilseed rape, spring beans, winter beans, spring oats, sugar beet and, for the first time for harvest 2021, winter linseed.
Investment in drone software is providing at least part of the solution by allowing Mr Nickols to monitor crops more frequently and efficiently.
After reading about the mobile phone or tablet-based app Skippy Scout, Mr Nickols decided he wanted to try it out.
“We are on the edge of the Fens and the land is perfectly flat so it is easy to fly a drone and keep line of sight,” he says.
“The aim was to save time crop walking, but we have since established it is capable of much more.” He imported his field maps to the app and began choosing points in the fields for the drone to fly to earlier this year.
“I started early in 2020 and was able to cover large areas of the farm quickly.
The drone can fly to as many points in the field as I choose, and it does it all in minutes compared to the hours it would take me on foot,” he says.
Mr Nickols has a good eye for machinery and technology, having previously run a family machinery business.
“We had Willow Farm Machinery for a few years, but it was taking our attention away from the farm.
I wanted to use our machinery connections to change the kit on-farm and pursue a low-tillage system,” he explains.
The farm has invested in a Vaderstad Carrier 650 and a six-metre Weaving GD drill among other specialist lowtillage equipment.
“It is important to have the right machinery and we wanted to invest in the future of our soil,” says Mr Nickols.
This is the first year he has not ploughed a single field.
“Changing the cultivation technique is definitely helping the soil, and it is also helping us with black-grass too,” he adds.
By subsoiling and not ploughing, he believes he is better managing the black-grass seed bank.
“In the past there have been times when we have had to spray large areas of a field off, but the last couple of years have been much better,” he says.
Monitoring yellow rust in the wheat crop has been a particular concern.
However, by using a drone Mr Nickols feels he is able to spot disease earlier and spray more effectively.
“Using the drone, I can pop out early and send it to a couple of fields that I know have been problematic in the past.
This way I can also build up data about a specific crop and field,” he says.
The images he receives from the drone are high resolution and can be zoomed in on to look for signs of rust.
“It is the best way I can see all my crops with the time I have available and it is enabling me to look at crops much more often than I used to,” he adds.
Following the ban on neonicotinoid use, Mr Nickols has been concerned about his sugar beet and OSR crops.
“Since losing the neonics we have seen a huge difference in virus yellows and this year is the first time we won’t make quota with sugar beet,” he says.
However, this autumn he has monitored his OSR crop more closely and frequently using his drone.
“I can pick up flea beetle on the OSR using the drone, too.
Last year we had terrible trouble with flea beetle, but I have been able to react more quickly this year and we just don’t seem to be having the same issues,” he adds.
Skippy Scout is also helping Mr Nickols get more out of his Gatekeeper software.
“I can save the images and cross reference the data with Gatekeeper to remind me how crops have performed year on year,” he says.
The software is able to analyse the images and provide an accurate green area index.
It can also count plants to provide Mr Nickols with the data he needs to make decisions.
“I’ve never got enough time to walk crops.
Especially now when we are drilling, cultivating, and spraying.
Being able to use the drone means I can see the crop and get all my other work done.” Mr Nickols is combining new machinery with John Deere tractors running on RTK and StarFire platforms.
He has also invested in Yara’s new N-Sensor.
“We are saving in chemicals because the technology has moved on to help us,” he says.
“I can use my drone to look for problems with a crop.
Once I am aware of any issues I can then adapt my methods to suit.
I think we [farmers] are going to have to change our methods to survive and technology is offering so many answers.
“I’m really encouraged by the investments I have made,” he concludes.