Cereals 2009: Plug and play makes precision farming pay

With the rise in fertiliser prices, interest in precision farming has soared, but compatibility is key to gleaning the benefits. We pick out the essentials for precision-farming novices

The joy of three-point linkage is that, whatever tractor you buy, whatever implement you have, you know the two will fit. But can the same be said of precision-farming kit?

This was a key consideration for Simon Newberry, farm manager at Ashley Farms, near Stockbridge, Hampshire. The 400ha all-arable business has recently upgraded its tractor and fertiliser spinner and took the opportunity to get precision-farming kit factory-fitted.

“My first question to dealers and manufacturers now is ‘Is it fitted with Isobus? You plug the fertiliser spreader in and the controller in the cab instantly recognises it. The data from SOYLcomes on a flash card that just plugs in. This seamless technology is key to making it pay.”

The decision to go down the precision-farming route was purely cost-driven. Farming shallow soil over chalk with some clay caps, Mr Newberry was aware there was potential to target fertiliser more closely. “Soil samples we took on a field-by-field basis showed there was a fair bit of variation.”

So the first step was a comprehensive soil analysis. This was carried out by precision-farming company SOYL with one sample location per hectare across each field. The location is logged using GPS and intense sampling, consisting of 16 sub-samples, is carried out at each location to ensure a representative sample is sent for analysis. These show levels of phosphate (P), potash (K) and magnesium (Mg), as well as pH.

“The actual variation was astonishing, with indices ranging from 0 to 4-,” reports Mr Newberry. “Even within one field it varied from 1+ to 4.” Extra information on expected yield and straw take-off is supplied, and SOYL sends through application data.

The farm’s John Deere 7530 tractor was factory-fitted with Isobus technology – a system of wiring, universal sockets and gadgetry agreed as the industry standard so that all the kit plugged into it talks the same language. It means when Mr Newberry plugs in his Kverneland Accord spreader, the Greenstar controller recognises it and can apply SOYL data variably without a separate controller. “There’s no calibration or extra setting up needed.”

The total amount of fertiliser applied across the whole farm may very similar to his previous, maintenance dressing, but where it is going is not. “The spinner shut right down to zero in places and opened right up elsewhere. The variability really opens your eyes to what the technology can deliver.”

The costs:

  • The full nutrient management costs £20/ha flat fee or £5.50/ha a year on SOYL’s finance scheme
  • To factory-fit a John Deere tractor with Isobus and Greenstar starts at £9000 up to £14,500 to include Autosteer

The benefits:

  • Typical fertiliser and lime savings of 30% -about £60/ha a year
  • Crop uptake of nutrients optimised
  • Flexible application plan to suit budget/situation
  • Less run-off – better for the environment

Will it plug and play?

This will be the buzz-phrase around manufacturers of precision-farming kit on the stands at Cereals, according to SOYL’s Simon Parrington.

“Everyone in the industry is now talking about plug and play – it’s the way forward in my view. If you’re upgrading any of your arable kit, from combines to cultivation equipment, you must talk about compatibility with dealers and reps.”

There are three areas that Cereals visitors looking into precision farming should investigate:

  • Sampling. Precision-sampling fields pinpoints data that can be used to variably apply fertiliser. SOYL has has already precision-mapped 15% of the entire UK cropped area, giving 750,000 soil samples that provide an idea of variation nationally.
  • Tackling technology. There’s a mind-bending array of manufacturers and options for kit that will apply variable rate. John Deere is the market leader with its Greenstar system, while for implements, ‘CJqijtrMvpoCFQWfnAodbUxBsg”>’Kverneland leads the way with more ISO-ready implements than any other manufacturer.
  • Research and best practice. A recent HGCA survey shows only 35% of arable farmers have even looked into what precision farming could do for them. The HGCA. Be PRECISE project aims to bring precision farming to a wider audience and arm growers with the know-how needed to get the best out of the technology.

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