13 November 1998

A BRAVE NEW WORLD?

ER.. MAYBE

Being at the cutting edge of GPS can have

its problems, says Oliver Walston, in the

second of his three articles on the subject

THERE will be, I wrote in the first article (FW Aug 98), "snags, frustrations and cock-ups". And that just about sums up my first harvest as a gung-ho, red hot and extremely naïve Precision Farmer.

If truth be told I have only myself to blame. Gadget freaks, like alcoholics, find it very difficult to say no. There I was one sunny afternoon being shown round the Claas factory by a very, very, very, senior executive. He had summoned the bosses of the precision farming department who were keen to show me their latest inventions.

Among these was a device which they called AgroCom. It consisted of a compact and detachable computer built into a colour monitor. But what really excited me about AgroCom was not simply its good looks, but the fact that it could be moved from combine to tractor or quad bike. Was it, I asked (trying to conceal my excitement) ready for on-farm use? The reply was a straightforward "Ja".

Persisted and persisted…

On my return home I phoned the Claas importers and told them about my new discovery. To my surprise, they did not share my enthusiasm. On the contrary, they pointed out the old Cebis system I had used last year had been perfectly reliable and thus they were distinctly uneasy about providing me with the latest technology until they were completely satisfied that it worked. I persisted and persisted and persisted. Three weeks later a shiny new AgroCom was fitted to our Claas Lexion 480.

The combine cab now began to take on the appearance of Regent Street at Christmas time. Coloured letters and symbols on the AgroCom made the old Cebis seem very dreary. I was really looking forward to harvest.

And then it all started to go wrong. After we had completed the first field of winter barley I seized the PCMCIA card, rushed back to the farm office, shoved it into the card reader and waited impatiently. A minute later I found myself looking at half a field; the other half had vanished into inner space. After that things went from bad to worse, and nobody at Claas seemed to know why. Experts arrived from Germany, spent the day fiddling, and went home full of smiles, assuring me that the problem had been solved. It had not. Indeed the yield maps became even worse, with long straggling lines which looked as if a demented chimpanzee had been playing with a geometry set.

By now harvest was drawing to a close and I was becoming desperate. Finally, and with much reluctance, I agreed to have the old Cebis system fitted again, and we eventually managed to produce yield maps for the last three fields we combined.

Taking shape

Meanwhile the other aspects of the great Precision Farming experiment were also taking shape. Peter Henley from Farmade installed his latest prototype mapping system on the farm computer, but worried me slightly by saying that the software was far from being bug-free and we might still eventually have to use the current system. The people from LH Agro came to fit their GPS-controlled system to our Bredal spreader but, having removed the old-fashioned land wheel drive, they went away leaving us with an unusable – but very high-tech – machine.

As the mists of September started to make the stubbles soggy, the man from Soyl arrived with his quad bike and whizzed all over the three fields which we had selected. Two weeks later his boss Simon Parrington presented me with a folder in which were stunningly beautiful maps showing the P, K, Mg and pH levels in glorious Technicolor. I was fascinated to see how great the variations really were but was equally-appalled to realise that in the past we had simply dumped the same amount of fertiliser across the entire field.

Today, as we approach the climax of the operation I am feeling a good deal less optimistic than I was when I dreamed up the project. The yield maps were a fiasco this harvest, though this was largely my own fault. The spreader is still in pieces in the barn. The computer mapping software may or may not be quite up to the job of producing instructions for the spreader. What had seemed so straightforward back in the spring looks distinctly dodgy today. But then, as I try to reassure myself, it probably took Harry Ferguson a year or two to get his linkage straightened out, and even the Wright Brothers didnt get airborne at the first attempt.

Meanwhile theres still one more problem to cope with: an information overload. I now know precisely how and where the three fields yielded, and I also know where the P and K are high and low. But what on earth should I do with all this knowledge? The next and final article will reveal all.