16 March 2001

MAPPpack looking good,

says Scot…

Computer decision support

systems are much talked

about, but little used as yet.

However a new potato

agronomy package could

change that.

Andrew Blake reports

A NEW computer package looks set to help potato growers manage their crops more precisely and so improve margins, according to a Scottish agronomist.

Perth-based Mark Ballingall of CSC CropCare tested the recently released MAPP programme (Arable Feb 23) last season. It has good potential to refine agronomy, he believes.

"For example, we compared its seed rate advice with our own PotatoCare calculator, developed by agronomist Robert Lang, and it came up with very similar answers."

Both aim to pinpoint optimum seed rates and spacings for specific varieties and particular end-markets, explains Mr Ballingall.

That result gave him confidence in the new product. But it offers much more than sowing advice, providing growth models which allow growers or agronomists to pose "what if" questions.

"It allows you to see what effect a change in seed rates of plus or minus 5% will have on the marketable sample. Or you can look at the start of the season and see what might happen if, say, you choose to grow a dual purpose variety like Maris Piper for seed."

Users can experiment with expected ware and seed prices, different burn-down dates and forecast yields. That could be used to determine whether a switch to ware might be more profitable, he explains.

"Or with ware-only crops it lets you see how the baker fraction is likely to change if you allow them to grow on and bulk up.

"The other beauty of the MAPP system is that it relates to inputs like irrigation too. You can predict optimum growth stages for applying water and various foliar feeds."

On a common scab susceptible variety, such as Maris Piper, that could be very useful, he suggests. Given a planting date the programme can predict tuber initiation, the ideal time for irrigating to minimise the disease.

"It should also be very useful in seed crops to identify the best time, again tuber initiation, to apply phosphate to boost tuber numbers."

In the first year of use, growers will need to choose a benchmark year, according to expected weather. "The model supplies data for 10 years ranging from very dry, as in 1976, to very wet like 1985."

But users can update the system with real-time weather information, either manually or in future through direct input from in-field stations. CSC PotatoCare has a network of Adcon remote stations which could help.

"We have six in Fife, one in Angus and will be installing a further four in Perthshire this year with opportunities in Aberdeenshire and the Borders."

The only problem is feeding such data directly to MAPP, but this should be solved this season, believes Mr Ballingall. "Its just a software compatibility issue."

Information from the CSC PotatoCare stations is collected centrally and fed to Holland over the internet, along with a five-day forecast from RAF Leuchars, to be run through Dacoms PlantPlus disease model.

The weather stations can also be used to measure evapotranspiration and run soil tensiometers, which measure soil moisture deficits as they develop.

"This is more accurate than conventional irrigation scheduling. The whole aim is to give growers more confidence in what they are doing. It wont necessarily save money but should help them move away from insurance spraying, which in todays climate is increasingly unacceptable.

"As supermarkets start to specify use of this sort of technology growers who have already taken it on board will have a lead. Its interesting that organic growers are already being forced down such assurance routes to justify their use of copper sulphate and predict times of high blight risk to vulnerable crops," he adds.

At £500 for the software and a further £500/yr for 10 crop licences MAPP may seem expensive for individual growers, he admits. But as a multi-user, with 12 depots and one or two potato specialists at each, CSC CropCare hope to improve on that price, he says.

The licence limit only kicks in when information on 10 specific crops has been saved to computer.

"If you dont save anything, and are prepared to input everything afresh each time, you can answer as many "what if" questions as you like. This makes it a useful planning tool for the skilled agronomist."

Acronym

MAPP stands for Management Advisory Package for Potatoes. The computer programme was developed by Mylnefield, the commercial arm of SCRI, with help from the BPC and Scottish Enterprise Tayside.

De-bugging

Beta-testing for bugs in the programme last year threw up the odd glitch, mainly related to salad potato production, says Mr Ballingall. "For example it came up with the same seed rate advice for three-row and two-row beds. That has now been remedied – thats the whole point of testing. This year we plan to take it out to growers and also give it a real-time test at our development site at Coupar Angus. There we shall grow two crops alongside each other, one relying on our own advice and another using MAPP.

MAPP POTENTIAL

* Seed rate selection for yield and market.

* Track crop development.

* Fine-tune inputs and irrigation.

* Forecast best burn-down date.

* Predicts yield & tuber size.

MAPP POTENTIAL

&#8226 Seed rate selection for yield and market.

&#8226 Track crop development.

&#8226 Fine-tune inputs and irrigation.

&#8226 Forecast best burn-down date.

&#8226 Predicts yield & tuber size.

De-bugging

Beta-testing for bugs in the programme last year threw up the odd glitch, mainly related to salad potato production, says Mr Ballingall. "For example it came up with the same seed rate advice for three-row and two-row beds. That has now been remedied – thats the whole point of testing. This year we plan to take it out to growers and also give it a real-time test at our development site at Coupar Angus. There we shall grow two crops alongside each other, one relying on our own advice and another using MAPP.

Acronym

MAPP stands for Management Advisory Package for Potatoes. The computer programme was developed by Mylnefield, the commercial arm of SCRI, with help from the BPC and Scottish Enterprise Tayside.