User group formed to make most of new tech on farm
By Charles Abel
PRECISION farming now has its own association. The Shuttleworth Precision Farming Alliance is dedicated to establishing better advice to help users make the most of the new technology at farm level.
"We needed something to bring some sense to it all," comments Brian Welti, manager of Shuttleworth Farms, Beds and a founder member. "We need to look at the effect of the technology at farm level, and explain it in farmer terms – after all farmers are the end users."
With that in mind, the group aims to evaluate the new technology in the field and gather information to improve its implementation, particularly in the area of agronomy. "We have most of the agronomy information, it is just a case of applying it to this new precision system," says alliance member and independent adviser Chris Dawson.
With the cycle now complete from mapped field to variable applications and back to mapped fields, farm trials are more valid, says Mr Dawson. Key goals are to identify how precise the technology needs to be and to develop commercially viable systems.
Support from business consultants Andersons will see economic appraisals of the work, while LEAF will add an environmental angle, comments Mr Welti.
Andersons has already developed a whole-farm computer model using information generated over the past four years at Shuttleworth Farms. This allows data from individual farms to be input to provide a range of projections of the financial effect of introducing precision farming to the farm.
"Farmer subscribers would be entitled to have access to this "what if" model, to help decision making for those who already have yield maps and for those considering whether to try precision farming," explains Mr Dawson.
He also stresses the importance of keeping the technology close to farming, rather than pursuing the sort of theoretical work underway elsewhere.
"We are leading the world in farm based development of precision farming and we need to keep it that way."
With 20,000ha (50,000acres) of UK arable land mapped last year, farmers are fast getting to grips with the technology and are themselves pushing for faster development, adds Peter Hart of MF. This is where the alliance could serve as a clearing house for ideas from farmers to scientists, as well as the test ground for ensuring ideas work before they are widely adopted by over-enthusiastic farmers. A user group of farmers could be a key part of the alliance in future, Mr Welti notes.
The association stresses that its aim is to develop and promote the technology, not individual products. "Our asset is not whose products we represent, but the knowledge those companies bring." There is little point including companies with parallel interests, adds alliance member Geoff Paulson of Hydro Agri. "Such duplication would do little to advance the state of knowledge."
Information will be disseminated through conferences, meetings and papers. "It is our intention that the alliance becomes recognised as a source of valid information – that our logo is a quality mark, so farmers know they are getting something of value," says Mr Paulson.
The alliance may go on to set standards within the industry, particularly for data collection, adds Mr Dawson.
"Without good data in the first base the whole thing is on shaky ground." Software compatibility may be addressed too.
The alliance has been formed as a European Economic Interest Group, giving it the scope to seek EU and other grant monies in future.
In the meantime funding is through "the goodwill of the founder members," says Mr Welti. Further members are being sought, the aim being to have another six by the end of the first year.
SHUTTLEWORTH PRECISION FARMING ALLIANCE
• Develop/promote precision farming at farm level.
• Seek agronomic solutions to respond to variation.
• Evaluate technology, with economic and environmental appraisals.
• Promote to public.
• Founder members: Hydro Agri, MF SA, Shuttleworth Trust.
• Aim to lead world in farm development of precision farming.
• National field day.
• Weds 6 Mar, 9am-5pm.
• Silsoe College, Beds.
• Full seminar programme.
• Tickets £10 each.
For a preview of the Precision Farming 96 event and ADASs views on mapping technology, turn to page 70.
Precision technology must be farm-based, argues Brian Welti of Shuttleworth Farms, a force behind the Precision Farming Alliance.