Is the time right for a switch to precision farming techniques? The HGCA’s Be Precise campaign aims to provide growers with information to make a more informed decision. Mike Abram reports
Want to know more about precision farming? HGCA is running a series of level one workshops outlining information on the kit involved, agronomic implications and how to interpret and use the data collected, in January and February. Log on to www.hgca.com for more information
Peter Geary is quite clear on his primary motivation for using precision farming techniques on his 200ha farm near Milton Keynes in North Buckinghamshire.
“It makes me money,” he told growers and advisers at the first HGCA Be Precise entry level workshop at Peterborough last week. “That was my primary motivation. There has been a secondary benefit of being able to justify my inputs.”
A stint at Silsoe College, where he was involved in precision farming projects, before taking over the management of his family farm had helped convince him he knew how to make money using precision farming, he said, which he began using during harvest 2005.
For an initial investment of £5000 he bought an off-the-shelf yield mapping unit, which would also variably apply fertiliser.
“Variable rate applications of P and K was the obvious thing to do to start with,” he said. “In the short-term there were savings of around £2000 a year to be made where we had areas of indices of three or four we could take a holiday on.”
Longer term those savings would disappear as he used the system to keep maintain soils at optimum levels, he acknowledged.
Extending that principle to N came quickly afterwards, although he admitted to being worried when his first application, the last nitrogen of the season, varied on one field from 0 to 470kg/ha of a 34% product. “But it worked – you need to be brave and trust what you are doing.”
With current N prices variable-rate applications made even more sense, he suggested. “Last year we used around 120t of N and because of variable rates we had saved 14t by the end of the year over what we would have applied if we had gone with a flat rate. At £340/t that is a significant saving on an investment of around £1000 for the maps.”
A light bar system on his original kit that helped operators guide machines had proved “useless”, however, he said, although he admitted it might be the version he used rather than the actual system. “It was too slow to react – the system has been binned now.”
However, more advanced automatic steering equipment, costing around £15,000, was not easy to justify as a stand-alone investment on his size of farm, he added. But it only cost an additional £3000 on top of the precision farming technology he was already committed to buying when he replaced a tractor and combine last year. “That was easier to justify. It is certainly useful kit to have to help avoid overlaps and reduce operator fatigue.”
His father, however, hated auto-steer, he said. “It’s not that easy to set-up, if you’re not technology minded.” That admission led to a key piece of advice. “You need to use precision farming because you want to, not because you are told to, and your employees must want to as well. The last thing you want is employees who can only do certain jobs because they won’t use, or don’t know how to, the technology.”
Switching to precision farming would cost money with no guarantee of a return, he continued. “It is important to have a chat with someone who is using the system, to get an idea about how you are going to save money before you invest,” he advised.
“Also make sure the system makes sense to you – you know how your farm works.”
Buying good-quality, reliable equipment with immediate back-up was also critical, he said. “If the system doesn’t work, you won’t use it, and make sure the provider can give you back-up there and then, not tomorrow. If it can’t, don’t buy it.”
Precision farming also took more time, he said. “You’ve got to download a map, fit into the system, wait for satellites, etc. It will be a bit of a faff to begin with, but when you look at the bottom line it will be worth it.”