10 April 1998

More now seeing the benefits of GPS technology

PRECISION farming has come a long way in the past four years, says Richard Smith of Precision Field Services.

He points out that in the UK, there are now 400 combines fitted with global positioning system (GPS) yield monitors, a number expected to double this year. In the US, there are 10,000 combines with yield monitors, with some farmers now in to their sixth year of yield mapping.

Despite reservations from some, Mr Smith is convinced many farmers are starting to see real benefits from precision farming, and this is increasingly so as margins get ever tighter.

"As with all technologies, yield mapping systems are becoming faster, lighter and cheaper – some combine manufacturers believe all new machines will be installed with GPS yield monitors before the turn of the century," he says.

"There is also a growing network of support businesses operating in this sector so farmers wishing to adopt this new technology can call on expert advice and experience."

But Mr Smith believes the danger with this technology occurs when people expect too much from it, partly due to the optimistic way precision farming was initially promoted by several machinery companies. "The reality is that the whole process requires a lot more patience," he explains. "To begin with, accurate data is required, gathered over the course of several years.

"Three years yield maps only start to provide a picture of each fields performance for different crops and in different conditions. Yield maps can identify problem areas and quantify the losses associated with that problem – they are a management tool, and no more."

But Mr Smith says there are a number of developments in the pipeline which will enhance the whole precision farming process. For example, yield monitors for potatoes, carrots and other mechanically harvested root crops will soon be available.

Trial work has highlighted wide variations in the yields of these crops and, therefore, offers the prospect of improving the targeting of inputs to maximise efficiency of production.

Better satellites

Further ahead, satellite imagery is developing fast. Traditionally regarded as both inaccurate and unreliable, satellites will be available later this year offering a 1m (3.3ft) resolution.

New satellite radar technology will not be troubled by cloud cover – one of the main reasons why satellite imagery has never had a serious interest in the UK.

"Naturally, farmers question the cost of precision farming in the current arable climate. As with any investment, the cost and potential benefits must be weighed up.

"But there is no shortcut to this process," concludes Mr Smith. "The sooner a system is installed, the sooner the benefits can begin to be utilised." &#42

Over 400 combines are operating in the UK with GPSyield monitors, says Richard Smith (inset).