What does precision farming mean to you? Pain or pleasure? Frustration or fulfilment?
Either way, the chances are that you have already had a go and are some of the way towards observing, measuring and managing the variability on your farm to make better use of inputs
Not necessarily, says Oliver Wood, precision technology manager with Hutchinsons, and in charge of Omnia, the company’s new nutrient management and precision farming service.
Having just completed the largest ever precision farming survey in the UK, Mr Wood is well placed to give an update on the use of the various precision farming technologies and services available.
His information shows that one-third of the country’s growers are still undecided about the usefulness of precision farming, opting to do nothing with the technology that is increasingly on offer and coming as standard on new machinery.
“It wasn’t a huge surprise to us,” says Mr Wood.
“We have been aware for some time that many growers are looking for far more technical advice with precision technology, as well as a way of linking their findings to their agronomic decisions.
Do you know the difference between GPS and RTK? Or your Isobus and correction level? See our guide to precision farming terms.
“Just having the information on its own isn’t enough. It has to be useful.
“Without sufficient evidence of that, or help to achieve it, some farmers have decided to wait before taking the plunge.”
The survey, which generated 1,117 responses, covered all regions of the UK and all farm sizes.
The participating growers were asked what they currently did with precision farming, as well as what their plans were for the future.
Not surprisingly, by far the most popular development was GPS or auto-steering.
Some 55% of those surveyed were already using it across their farms, with instant success and obvious benefits.
“It works,” says Mr Wood. “And although there was a trend for the larger farms to make good use of GPS guidance and auto-steering, with 83% of farms with more than 500ha of cropping having opted in, it was also the most popular development on smaller farms.”
Variable rate product applications
After that, the next most popular operation was variable-rate product applications, followed by yield mapping.
“It was interesting to see just how many growers were making use of variable-rate product applications,” continues Mr Wood.
“It takes time and motivation to get these things working well, so growers have clearly accepted this challenge. The reward with them, of course, is the chance to make savings, as well as to boost output.”
Yield mapping was being carried out on one-third of the farms surveyed.
Growers are keen to tap into the developing technology and improve efficiency, with savings in input costs being just one driver, he says.
“There is potential to save £40-£60/ha with herbicides, by targeting them at weed patches and bad areas of the farm,” he says.
“Blackgrass is a particular case in point, with possibilities with both pre-emergence and post-emergence sprays.”
Slug pellets and growth regulators are also relevant for variable-rate applications, as their use can be tweaked in line with seasonal pressures, he suggests.
Fungicides, however, are different, believes Mr Daubney. “There’s much more technical advice surrounding fungicide use and some complex tank mixes are used in the busy times.
“There are also weather variables to consider, as well as spray quality, water volume and nozzle choice factors.
“It makes it much more difficult to apply variable rates with success, especially as buffer zones and water protection are another concern.”
A closer look revealed that almost 80% of those farmers who were already engaged with precision farming were using variable-rate applications for base fertiliser.
“Base fertiliser was well ahead of nitrogen, seed and other crop protection products,” notes Mr Wood.
“Again, it seems that growers have faith in it. It’s working well for them.”
Seed rates were being varied by more than 40%, while nitrogen was being applied using satellite imagery by almost 30% and a tractor-mounted sensor by nearly 20%.
“The technology for nitrogen is regarded with a bit more suspicion than it is for seed rates,” he reports.
“But there is a willingness to get it right, because nitrogen is such a huge expense on arable farms.”
Variable seed rates were being used more widely, with growers making alterations according to soil type and weed pressures.
While the larger farms – more than 500ha – were making the most use of this technology, even the smallest units had been able to see the benefits.
Herbicides and slug pellets
“More surprising was that 20% of the survey respondents were variably applying crop protection products,” reveals Mr Wood.
“We’re not quite sure how this is broken down between the different types of agrochemicals, but it is most likely to be herbicides and slug pellets that are being applied according to seasonal pressures.
“Of course, there is also potential for plant growth regulators to be variably applied, especially where seed rates have been calculated in the same way.”
When asked whether they needed more technical advice to help them get the most from precision farming, the participants were split evenly, with 51% saying no and 49% saying yes.
“And of those that replied that they would like more advice, there was an even split between the different farm sizes.”
Yield maps were not being used by many of the farmers surveyed. “It seems that growers aren’t sure what to do with them.
“There’s also a lack of good software to analyse the data, as well as a danger of putting too much emphasis on one layer of data,” notes Mr Wood.
Expanding precision farming use
Looking ahead, more than 50% of the growers surveyed were planning to expand their use of precision farming operations in the next 12 months.
“There was interest in all of the functions, but more were looking at variable seed rates than fertiliser, nitrogen or crop protection.”
One-quarter of the farms that are not currently using any form of precision technology are also planning to get involved in the coming year.
For them, base fertiliser was the likely starting place.
“It is the traditional entry point,” acknowledges Mr Wood. “Of course, it does mean they have to start using straights, if they aren’t already doing so, which can increase workloads.
The second-hand machinery market is also making some of this technology more accessible, as well as more affordable.”
Summing up the survey results, he points out that the link between precision farming information and agronomy is critical. “This is where farmers are looking for more help.
“They want to be able to make the best use of the information that is being created, which often means combining multiple layers of data.”
Mr Wood also adds that growers are planning to invest in further developments, despite the current downturn in commodity prices.
“That’s good news, as it shows they have understood what it can do for their business and how variable-rate application plans can be employed.”