2 June 1995

SATELLITE STRATEGY IS MAPPED OUT

Shuttleworth Farms is an acknowledged leader in precision farming. But in many other ways it aims to keep its cropping simple. Charles Abel reports on the Bedfordshire host farm for Cereals 95

SATELLITE mapping has been an everyday feature at Shuttleworth Farms since 1992, when the first four fields were mapped using a combine-mounted yield monitor linked to a global positioning system.

Technology has come a long way since then. This year 120ha (300 acres) are under satellite scrutiny using Massey Ferguson technology. Some fields have now been weed mapped and variable rate drilling, fertiliser spreading and herbicide spraying were tried this spring.

Farm manager and Cereals 95 host, Brian Welti, has no doubt the technology has benefits. "Yield mapping is the main benefit. It provides extremely useful information, even in the first year. Not only does it confirm what you may have expected, it also throws up surprises, which can be investigated and remedied."

But although the aim of precision farming is to add detail, other aspects of the Shuttleworth system are being simplified. Cropping is being rationalised in a bid to curtail fixed costs on the 475ha (1175-acre) College Farm, part of the 1900ha (4600-acre) estate south-east of Bedford.

Root crops are being reconsidered. Early/second early potatoes have been lucrative, so will not be dropped. But running an unmanned harvester is out of the question, so the job has been put out to a contractor.

Contracted out

The story is similar for sugar beet, the harvesting now being contracted out. And inadequate onion storage means land which suits the crop is rented to a neighbour.

"We have to look at our main asset here – the land type and the extensive irrigation capability. So we cant drop the roots. The potato area could actually increase to include maincrop. But it will be several years before we get to the threshold area needed to justify our own harvesting equipment," says Mr Welti.

In the meantime more effort can be focused on combinable crops and the 180-cow dairy herd with its 120 followers.

Feed wheats reduced

Central to the combinable crops operation is the sites ability to grow quality wheats year in, year out. Last years newcomer Rialto did well, so the area has been increased at the expense of feed types which have been cut to 25% of the wheat area. Here again yield maps have been used to evaluate varieties and their performance on the estate.

"Rialto suits us. It is very early maturing. This year it was at GS32 when Spark was still at GS31 and Riband was only just approaching that stage." That ensures maturity is reached before drought stress sets in.

The Rialto is grown as a "quantity" wheat, not a feeder, nor a bread-maker, stresses Mr Welti. "We know we can get a premium. So management aims for maximising yield and achieving quality is a bonus." Spark complements it, being grown on the lighter land as a true quality wheat.

So far NABIM category 2 variety Rialto has achieved quality consistently, commanding a worthwhile £15/t premium last year.

Combined with a 9.2t/ha (3.7 t/acre) yield that makes it an attractive proposition when compared with a £20/t premium for category 1 bread-makers Spark and Mercia which averaged 6.8t/ha (2.75t/acre) and 7.7t/ha (3.1t/acre) respectively.

Mr Welti has been using precision farming to evaluate the quality of wheat varieties. He has managed to generate crop protein and specific weight maps of a number of fields. The results have been very surprising he says. For example, protein varied within a field by more than 50% and hectolitre varied 20%.

The maps have generated an enormous amount of interest as they have never been done before, comments Mr Welti "especially the hectolitre weight map as this large variation makes it essential to yield map with a mass flow yield meter and not volumetrics."

Riband is the feed choice, two thirds of it being fed to the farms own stock. Some malting barley is also grown, usually autumn-sown Pipkin and spring-sown Alexis.

The preferred break crop is oilseed rape. Pulses have been dropped on account of their poor support prices and area aid.

Maize for the dairy enterprise is also grown. That achieves a double break which allows wheat and barley to be grown for certified seed.

Financial monitoring has not yet switched to unit cost of production. Crops are managed on a gross margin and fixed costs budget, with a £250/ha (£100/acre) variable cost target. "Obviously we build in some margin for the unexpected – like wheat blossom midge, slugs or aphids."

Three main areas are considered the key to preserving combinable crop profits in future: choosing the right variety, then matching inputs to it, particularly fungicides, and adapting establishment techniques.