13 August 1999

Precision farming – here sooner than you think

The new millennium is set

to bring many exciting

developments to arable

farming. To provide a taste

of the future farmers weekly

has joined forces with

Michelin to quiz a different

industry expert each

fortnight. Charles Abel

sets the ball rolling with a

look at the potential for

precision farming

IMAGINE having every fact about the past performance of crops on your farm at your fingertips, then add a snapshot of how every crop is doing today, plus a robust forecast of what they will do over the coming months.

Next add the ability to vary inputs and operations within each crop to optimise their performance. And all this is done in the light of previous experience on the farm and under your close supervision.

Sounds interesting? So it should. It could save you £s on inputs, put extra tonnes in the harvest trailer and help cut overheads too.

This is the future of precision farming, according to York-based consultant Chris Dawson. And it could be a reality sooner than you think.

"Yield mapping will soon be as common on harvesters as a speedo is on a car. And all spreaders, sprayers and drills will have variable rate capability too. These things do not cost a lot and manufacturers cant take the risk of not fitting them," he says.

Real-time crop sensors operating on farm equipment and fresh satellite or aerial images bought at low cost from a local provider, such as a merchant or agchem distributor, will also become commonplace.

Powerful computerised crop modelling will then allow such information to be analysed so the best management plan can be developed for specific areas of each crop.

But crucially, all this equipment will not replace the input from farmers and agronomists. On the contrary, they will provide a detailed farm-specific input to tailor the outcome to the specific circumstances of each individual farm.

"Rather than a standard approach which automatically adjusts inputs, precision farming will give the farmer the information he needs to adjust management the way he wants to adjust it," says Mr Dawson.

And it will use previous years as a guide to future actions. "It will learn as it goes, tailoring the way it uses the information to your specific farming style. It will not make farmers and agronomists redundant. It will help them develop a powerful tool to help manage their specific business."

Cost of the equipment is unlikely to be limiting. "As more gets used costs will fall."

More pertinent is the issue of how beneficial precision management is and how detailed it should get. "That will depend upon crop values and crop responses. But some high value horticultural crops are already managed by the pot in the glasshouse. Once field-scale farmers see the scope to vary an input or management, even if only between two halves of the same field, they will want to do that. And we now have the tools to allow them to do so."

The technology will quickly be as accepted in farming as cars are in everyday life, Mr Dawson believes. "In the early days car enthusiasts spent all their time discussing the problems experienced on a journey and how they were overcome. Precision farming is a bit like that now. In a few years it will be as unremarkable as a typical car journey – it will be an accepted part of modern farming."

Significantly, though, UK farmers will have a competitive advantage. "There is no doubt that we are at the forefront of this technology and that is likely to remain the case. It gives us a useful platform from which to raise our game, both economically and environmentally."

That will not only be in terms of using crop inputs with greater precision and matching cropping to the potential of different areas, though. It will also help farmers justify input use to regulators, buyers and consumers.

Furthermore, with each farm machine logging exactly what it does, when and where, there will be great scope for reducing operating costs, Mr Dawson notes.

By 2010 most farms will be using its own tailor-made precision farming package to refine crop management, he forecasts. "Then it will just be a part of modern farming, rather than being seen as something a bit special."

PRECISION POTENTIAL

&#8226 Yield mapping harvesters as standard.

&#8226 All spreaders, sprayers and drills able to vary rates.

&#8226 Software to analyse historic data, real-time info and forecasts to guide management.

&#8226 Farm-specific approach considers previous seasons and farmer preferences.

&#8226 Will help cut costs, boost output and tailor overheads.