Farmer Focus: Convinced of precision farming benefits

Spring has sprung here in Cornwall, with improving weather conditions meaning the workload is steadily increasing as the days get longer.

Our winter “quiet period” is always fairly short, as the daffodil flower harvesting commences at the beginning of February. That first harvest of the year is now complete and we have moved into the more conventional jobs.

Our relatively small area of spring beans went in on one of the contract farms in good time.

This was followed up by 25ha of spring barley up on the cliff land. I held off drilling the remaining 14ha following forage rape until early April as I wanted the soil temperature to increase because it’s being undersown with grass. It’s always a compromise between the two crops, but even grass establishment is vital.

Fertiliser spreading and spraying continue apace. We are gradually moving down the precision-farming route, having started with variable rate applications of phosphate and potash three years ago. This is our second season using a tractor-mounted N Sensor when applying nitrogen. I feel that we are still learning how to get the best from these systems, but I am convinced by the arguments for them.

In our location, with its relatively high rainfall and average soils, the most effective inputs are those that increase our average by improving performance on moderate land, rather than increasing yields on good bits.

Priority has now turned to potato and onion planting. Wet soils have delayed the start, but with both these crops, correct planting conditions are usually more important than calendar date.

Onions are an unusual crop to grow in the south-west of England; however, we grow them to help meet the requirement for ingredients with local provenance for the Cornish pasty industry. During 2013 we invested in improved drying and handling facilities for the crop, so this year we are able to increase the area we grow.

In a normal season we would be unlikely to achieve a perfect skin finish, thanks to our regular rainfall, but we can produce good yields of large processing onions. This, combined with our own peeling and processing facilities, makes it a good crop for us.

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Jeremy Oatey manages 1,100ha of arable land near Plymouth in Cornwall and is the Farmers Weekly’s Arable Farmer of the Year. Cropping includes wheat, barley, oilseed rape, oats and beans as well as potatoes, onions, swedes and daffodils