22 August 1997

Seed economies scope

PRECISION farming can help cut establishment costs by cutting drilling rates and targeting sub-soiling more accurately.

That is the view of Brian Welti, manager of Shuttleworth Farms, Beds, and a founding member of the Shuttleworth Precision Farming Alliance.

Indeed, whole farm precision farming will be a key exhibit at Cultivations 97, the national cultivations and drilling demonstration organised by the East of England Agricultural Society in conjunction with farmers weekly.

"I think we could drop our wheat seed-rate from a fairly conventional 185kg/ha to 150kg/ha where we know the seed-bed, soil conditions and timing are right," says Mr Welti.

Not only will that cut seed costs it should also ensure the optimum plant population for maximum yield, he adds.

"We have the hardware in the form of variable rate drills – all we need now is to decide how to vary the rate. Yield mapping will help, showing which areas of a field are best suited to a rate reduction. But we also want to take account of changes in soil conditions across a field at drilling time."

With that in mind a trial was established last year with short tramlines drilled at rates of 150, 200, 250 and 300 seeds/sq m across a field with a wide range of soil types. "The treatments were repeated seven times along the field, which ranges from light to heavy soil, giving fine to cloddy seed-beds."

Results will be collected this harvest and the trial repeated next year. "Its important not to read too much into one-year results, particularly after such an unusual season. But it will be interesting to see how yield responds."

Better targeting of sub-soiling is another goal. "Sub-soiling is the most expensive cultivation we carry out. In an average year it costs £32.52/ha, including labour and parts – in a bad year it can be as much as £70/ha. Were very keen to reduce that cost wherever we can. Its a lot of money to spend on a feelgood factor."

"Yield mapping gives us a picture of where there is a limit on yield so we can target our checks on soil structure to problem areas.

"It is quite possible that some areas in an otherwise compacted field will not need sub-soiling. In many other areas ploughing to 10 inches could actually be quite enough," he says.

"Ultimately it would be nice to have a draught force map, so we could tell how much work is being done with sub-soiling. That would show which areas have a real problem, allowing even better targeting in future," he comments.

&#8226 For the first time whole fields at Shuttleworth Farm will be subjected to precision farming techniques from drilling to harvesting next season. "We will have a variable rate combination drill, spreader, sprayer and maize drill all in action on at least half the farm," says Mr Welti.

Precision farming work at the relaunched Shuttleworth College, now part of Writtle University, will help contain establishment costs, says centre director Brian Welti.

Precision farming equipment will be a key exhibit at Cultivations 97. The event takes place on Tues, Sept 9 at Shuttleworth Farms, Biggleswade, Beds, where over 40 exhibitors will demonstrate cultivation and drilling tackle on clay soils from 10am-3.30pm. Entry: £5 (EEAS members free). Details from EEAS: 01733-234451.