On-farm weather specialist Sencrop more than doubled its network of ultra-local weather stations in the UK last year, as farmers latched on to the value of both remote monitoring and data sharing.
Now a new tool, launched for the 2021 potato growing season, promises to help growers – whether existing customers, or those considering joining the Sencrop network – make better use of their weather station data.
The ‘crop timeline’ is designed to guide growers in how to apply their weather station’s metrics – temperature, humidity, rainfall, wind and the optional leaf wetness sensing – to each stage of the crop’s development, helping to aid decision-making around essential tasks throughout the crop calendar.
Harry Atkinson, Sencrop’s UK business development manager, says: “It’s a simple idea but one that customers have been asking for.”
“Compared to a standard manual rain gauge, there’s a wealth of information coming out of one of our units. There’s a lot of opportunity for growers to apply that data constructively and proactively.”
“All the weather station’s data is available through the app dashboard in real time, making it easy to see things such as rainfall, whether it’s for the last hour or the last 24 hours.”
“As a Sencrop user, you can also link your individual station to a much wider network – local, regional or even national – to access current and historic weather from more distant units.”
Weather patterns Mr Atkinson cites the example of an eastern counties weather station user who also follows stations set up in the South West, the prevailing direction for most of the UK’s weather patterns, which allows him to keep track of incoming wind and rain.
Many growers just enjoy the ‘luxury’ of not having to traipse out to take readings from manual, analogue weather stations, says Mr Atkinson, and view the information on their phone’s screen instead.
But this luxury also has a practical benefit: growers on contract or rented land may have several remote sites and driving between them to assess wind speed or check rainfall can be a time-consuming process.
And an increasing number of growers want to use the information more constructively, to act as guidance and decision support throughout the entire crop cycle.
Mr Atkinson points to France, where decision support tools (DST) such as Mileos – a popular agronomic model focused on preventing late blight in potatoes – have been part-funded by the French Ministry of Agriculture.
Mileos exists to optimise fungicide applications using a range of inputs, including weather station data, disease observations, variety resistance and other agronomic factors, such as chemical inputs and irrigation schedules.
In a recent study, more than 1,400 growers were equipped with weather stations to take part in a late blight trial across 80,000 hectares.
Those weather stations fed their data into the Mileos system.
“Users reported a typical three-spray reduction where they’d been using the Sencrop/ Mileos combination to support their decision-making,” Mr Atkinson says.
“That translated into a €160/ha saving.”
Mileos is not yet available to UK growers, but Sencrop has been working to validate the French results under British conditions.
If the outcome is favourable, then Mileos could join other DSTs, currently focused on vineyard and fruit production, in the Sencrop data ecosystem.
Decision support “Providing a DST with ultra-local metrics from a Sencrop unit gives growers an in-depth interpretation that aggregates real-time, accurate data in a seamless and automatic fashion,” says Mr Atkinson.
“But it’s important to note that these are ‘decision support’ tools: they inform but leave the final decision in the hands of the grower.”
“It’s all about giving them the full picture, on the basis of all the data they have available, to make the best possible decision for their crop at that time and place with a greater degree of confidence.”
It is this wait for a suitable UK DST that, in part, lies behind the development of the crop timelines.
Soil operations “Perhaps more than any other crop, the success of potatoes relies heavily on the grower’s ability to manage and control disease.
But the onset and extent of that disease, whether alternaria or late blight, is inextricably linked to weather, as are soil operations, such as planting and ridging, as well as other agronomic interventions, such as weed control, desiccation and harvesting,” says Mr Atkinson.
As growers have got used to trusting the information provided by the app and the Sencrop system, feedback has indicated an appetite for using the data across more farm operations, Mr Atkinson adds.
In an effort to show the extent of how the data can be used, the potato timeline divides the crop cycle into six distinct stages: planting, emergence, active growth, tuber development, senescence and harvest.
Within each stage, at-a-glance pictograms show which of the weather data metrics growers should focus on and why.
“Planting decisions and early weed control, for example, demand accurate knowledge of temperature, rainfall, humidity and wind speed to select an optimal planting date.”
Later in the season, humidity and leaf wetness data will help guide decisions about when to begin fungicide programmes, he says, while at harvest it is the remote sensing ability that will be most valuable in planning operations, helping growers decide which sites remain dry enough to harvest.”
“Growers have said that in an on-off harvest, working efficiency has markedly improved by knowing where they should relocate machinery without having to check the site in person.”