19 August 1997

Precision buffs debate new approaches

PRECISION farming technology attracted over 300 delegates from almost 30 countries to Warwick last week for the First European Conference on Precision Farming.

But while scientists deliberated the merits of novel approaches, considerable unease about their practical relevance emerged among UK delegates.

"The bottom line is what matters and that is why yield mapping is so important," commented independent consultant Chris Dawson. "It shows you where you are losing money, and you may then be able to target some of these more sophisticated techniques at finding out why that is."

Robert Cook, former director of Morley Research Centre and new leader of a MAFF-funded study of reduced input farming, echoed that view.

"We almost need to insist yield mapping systems come with a software package to superimpose three years of normalised data so meaningful comparisons can be made."

Precision farming should also be seen as a tool to aid informed crop management rather than an end in itself, he said.

With new equipment buying on hold, many growers can delay a move into the new technology for at least three years, noted Hampshire consultant Alan Bide. By then costs will have fallen and doubts about how to use the information will have been largely resolved, he suggested.

&#8226 Precision farming techniques clearly demonstrated the value of adjusting nitrogen rates in line with soil mineral N testing this spring, says Brian Welti of the Shuttleworth Precision Farming Alliance. "In the one field where we cut nitrogen rates, according to soil mineral N results the yield and quality benefits are very clear."