As precision farming
becomes accepted on-farm,
there are opportunities –
and pitfalls – for
contractors wanting to
Peter Hill reports
IF YOU have ever experienced a frustrating problem with a computer – or even a fax machine or printer for that matter – then it may be possible to imagine the irritation and frustration caused when equipment for precision farming techniques refuses to play ball.
Trumpeted as a means of cutting costs, boosting yields and providing green credentials, it quickly became apparent in the early days of this technology that turning precision farming theory into practice would be problematic.
The implement controller that could not be made to understand what the GPS monitor wanted it to do. Worse, the spreader that thought it understood what was required of it but then put on too much or too little of the customers precious fertiliser.
Pioneering contractors in the field of precision farming faced these and other problems as they tried to bring together computers, software, electronics, machinery and operators into a cohesive system to meet customers mapping or variable rate application requirements.
It is a shame that difficult experiences – and some downright disasters – have tarnished the glowing potential of many precision farming technologies. But someone had to do it first, to learn lessons the hard way and apply the pressures needed to ensure software and equipment engineers came up with solutions that now make such compatibility and operational problems a less frequent occurrence.
As a result, contractors can get involved in this field with more confidence – from a technical standpoint at least. Whether they can be so confident of earning a decent return on their investment is another matter.
"There is a tendency for contractors to get wrapped up in the equipment and technology without exploring the commercial potential fully," suggests Steve Arthurton of Dalgety Arables DDF Precision Agronomy Service. "Without a market, they can end up spending a lot of time and money on something that earns them little or no return."
This specialist division within Dalgety Arable is taking a considered approach to the introduction of precision farming services, which now include soil scanning, soil nutrient sampling, analysis and mapping, variable rate fertiliser application, and potato cyst nematode (PCN) sampling and mapping.
"It is not an easy sell for contractors. Farmers need to be convinced that they will see a return from any precision farming technology and be committed to its use over a period of time," notes Mr Arthurton. "I think it is unlikely that contractors will instantly get customers knocking on their door simply by going out and buying all the kit."
Better, he says, to work with a company like Dalgety, which not only provides the tailored agronomy package and data interppritation necessary for precision farming technology to work to the farmers advantage but which has the technical expertise to handle issues such as equipment and software compatibility.
Good to talk
"We have experience of these systems and the problems that can arise, so it make sense for contractors to talk to us rather than rely entirely on the assurances of people selling the products," Mr Arthurton suggests.
Demand for contract services in this field is limited at present – Dalgety uses one spreading contractor for single-product variable rate fertiliser application and a handful for GPS soil sampling – but has great future potential, he believes.
"A lot of the farmers getting involved at present are big enough to use their own equipment," he points out. "After all, if they have a combine with yield mapping facilities, they can easily transfer the GPS equipment to a tractor and go variable rate spreading."
But there is a good deal of potential around the corner as farmers unwilling to either invest in the equipment or to get to grips with computers and software take the contract services route to precision farmings potential benefits.
"I believe we are rapidly approaching a time when precision farming techniques will be used more widely," says Steve Arthurton. "Were continually developing the services we offer and are certainly interested in talking to contractors that understand the concepts involved and can demonstrate an ability to do the job."
SOYL general manager Simon Parrington agrees that contractors are better off working with a precision farming partner than trying to go it alone.
"The equipment side of things is now relatively straight-forward because there are spreaders, implement controllers and other equipment that will do the job consistently and reliably," he says. "But the agronomy and use of GPS technology is complex and it is here that farmers need advice and technical back-up."
Having started out by running its own twin-bin Terra-Gator self-propelled spreader, SOYL now uses more than 20 contractors covering all major arable areas of England and Scotland with a two-product variable rate application service, and five providing variable rate lime spreading.
Those operating SOYLs Opti spreader operating system can remove the detachable control unit, connect it to a modem and download digital application maps from the companys main computer system.
"This allows us to make rate changes at the last minute – if the customer has applied muck to fields about to get a P and K dressing, for example," notes Mr Parrington. "For other systems, we send the digital application maps by e-mail or on floppy discs or smart cards."
The main criteria for those signed up to the SOYL team include a professional approach and a good track record with high-tech equipment such as electronically controlled sprayers.
"Contractors also need to be computer literate and be prepared to invest in the necessary equipment – usually a twin spreader set-up with the necessary GPS and control systems," adds Mr Parrington. "And we also prefer them to be NAAC members, which is some guarantee that they will be fully and properly insured."
With demand pretty much static at present, SOYL is not looking to sign up any additional capacity.
"About 40% of the farmers who use our soil nutrient sampling and recommendation service use contractors for lime or fertiliser application," notes Mr Parrington. "The rest – which tend to be larger farming enterprises with the necessary financial and management resources – do the spreading work themselves, either using their own GPS system or by simple dead-reckoning."
With GPS systems costing from around £2500, many farms – typically of 360ha or more – can justify having their own equipment, he adds.
But these will usually be limited to applying one fertiliser product variably, whereas contractors are more often than not equipped to apply P and K at different variable rates, giving a one-pass advantage. Using a contractor also has benefits on farms without sufficient labour to cope with spreading, seedbed cultivation and drilling all at the same time. *