Is precision farming worth it? We ask two arable farmers

One-third of arable farmers are still undecided about the usefulness of precision farming, opting to do nothing with the technology despite it coming as standard on much new machinery.

Some are seeing real benefits in reduced input costs and/or improved crop yields while others find it is costly in terms of the time needed to make it work and see limited benefits.

Here, two farmers outline their contrasting experiences with precision farming technology.

See also: Tech talk: 14 precision farming terms explained

Andrew Williamson‘Precision agriculture has to be based on good agronomy’

Shropshire farmer and Nuffield scholar Andrew Williamson is convinced of the benefits of precision farming, seeing a yield increase in oilseed rape.

His decision to embrace the technology within his own business back in 2007 encouraged him to investigate the concept further, and he was duly awarded a Nuffield Travel Scholarship in 2013 called “Precision agriculture: how to realise the full potential”.

That opportunity took him all over the world, looking at how different techniques and technologies were being employed and how the resulting data was being used for economic and agronomic gain.

Now making use of variable-rate applications for seed, fertiliser and other crop inputs, as well as yield mapping, auto-guidance and sectional sprayer control, he is clear about what it is bringing to his 364ha arable farm.

Economic benefit

“There is an economic benefit,” he says. “And that comes from being able to push the farm to its potential. It allows us to get every part of the field to perform.”

On his farm, it has also helped with environmental performance. As all the land he manages is in HLS, he has been able to take the most relevant areas out of production and pinpoint measures accurately to boost bird populations.

Mr Williamson admits he has spent time and effort in getting to this point, putting in many hours of office work and having some initial teething problems with machinery compatibility.

“Eventually, collecting the data turned out to be the easy part. Measuring that there’s variation is only the first stage – you then have to find out what’s causing it.”

His quest started with yield mapping in 2007. While that showed there were fluctuations in yield, it was only the first stage in providing him with the level of information required to make better decisions.

“We used the yield mapping results to do some targeted soil sampling, so that we could compare the highest-yielding areas with poorer-performing ones,” he says.

By 2008, he was variably applying P and K fertiliser, according to soil test results. In the same year, he began using Yara’s N Sensor technology to alter N rates according to crop requirements, based on measurements taken as the tractor passed through the crop.

“The N Sensor works in a completely different way to soil analysis maps and is an example of real-time agronomy,” he explains.

“A tractor-mounted sensor measures the crop’s light reflectance and then calculates the actual N uptake of the crop. As a result, it can adjust rates while on the move.”

He has since gone on to purchase an N Sensor, sharing the cost with three other farmers.

As a result, more nitrogen is now being applied to his oilseed rape, with a corresponding yield increase, but the total amount applied to wheat has remained the same.

“Of course, the rate varies within the field, according to the crop’s potential. But overall, our N use is very close to what it was before.”

GPS guidance

By 2010, Mr Williamson had moved to GPS guidance and auto-steering on his machinery, adding automatic and sectional control to his sprayer.

These developments gave him improved accuracy and better input targeting, saving time and money while allowing greater fine-tuning than before.

From there, he began to look at electrical conductivity scanning of the soils, to be able to produce maps of similar soil zones and vary seed rates.

That has worked very well at Upper Overton Farm, with different seed rate information now being combined with pest and weed data, to allow more complex variable treatment plans to be implemented.

“With hindsight, I would have preferred to start out with the electrical conductivity scanning,” he admits. “But it is an expense, albeit a one-off. It costs somewhere between £10-£30/acre.”

The scanning process assesses the soil’s physical properties, with the resulting values varying according to clay content, soil depth, stoniness and moisture content.

“It allowed us to reduce seed rates on our lighter land, where we have better seed-to-soil contact. But some of the same land also has brome grass problems, so we’ve had to bring two layers of data into our thinking on those areas and manage them accordingly.”

Drones

Recently he has been looking at using drones to help map brome infestations and be able to introduce site-specific weed control.

Standard formats and processes are needed with precision farming, but they have been slow to appear, he says. “All of the field information comes back through my GateKeeper software, which allows me to make good use of the data.”

And data management is critical, he adds. “It’s the key to unlocking the full potential of variable-rate technology. Precision agriculture is not the same as picture agriculture – you have to understand the causes of variation to be able to do something about it.”

He also believes that data management needs to be simple, intuitive and freely available across all devices, whether that is an in-cab controller or a smartphone.

“Precision agriculture has to be based on good agronomy,” he says. “So we need to be able to get all the information out into the field, if we are going to make more use of it to improve our efficiency.”

Chris Wray ‘Mastering precision farming requires commitment’

Lincolnshire grower Chris Wray is taking a far more cautious approach to precision farming, despite having a healthy interest in what it has to offer.

Farming 645ha of combinable crops near Spalding in collaboration with two neighbours, he admits to being frightened by all the equipment and expertise required and put off by the time commitment that it involves.

“It’s scary,” he says. “I have made one or two attempts to get started, but getting anywhere meaningful with it was both painful and difficult. So we are right back to where we started.”

However, Mr Wray remains open-minded about precision technology and can see the benefits from getting it right.

And while he is aware of the various precision farming services around, which could take some of the time and trouble away by managing the data produced on the farm, he is also keen to understand it better when he does take the plunge.

“I know it would be easier to let someone else do it for me,” he says. “But I would like to get maximum benefit from it, which means going through every stage as it is introduced so that I can have confidence in the technology.”

Base station

Wray Farms is already making good use of GPS guidance on its machinery, which has proved to be reliable and trouble-free. The farm has its own base station and all operations are now carried out with greater accuracy and timeliness.

“GPS guidance has been a really good introduction for us,” he acknowledges. “It has bought savings in time and fuel, allowed us to target inputs more accurately and improved our working day.”

However, an attempt to use variable seed rates failed, after proving too difficult to put into practice. “I thought we could start our precision farming journey with seed rates, as it seemed to be the easiest concept to understand and develop.

“In addition, the fact that I had a John Deere box and Vaderstad drill meant that I already had the relevant equipment to make it work, so wouldn’t need to make a big investment.”

Some initial soil zones were identified from soil brightness images, but he was not convinced by their conclusions or for the need to put all his data through third-party software.

“The data is mine,” he points out. “It’s been generated from my fields, so it would be sensible to put it through our own farm office software, rather than exporting it elsewhere.”

Time cost

Mr Wray is also aware that mastering precision farming will require commitment and dedication.

“I am kept very busy on the farm, especially at drilling, spraying and harvesting times. So it’s difficult to see where the extra office hours are going to come from.”

He also believes there should be more transparency with the costs involved with precision farming and the compatibility between machines.

“Some services are charged for per hectare and others have an annual subscription, while the machinery manufacturers all offer different levels of support.

“That makes it difficult to see if you are getting good value for money or choosing the right option.”

Knowing what he wants to achieve with precision farming would be the best place to start, acknowledges Mr Wray.

“The easiest win on this farm seems to be seed. It may be that I have to invest in soil conductivity scanning, at about £13/ha, to get things moving.”

He is convinced that the rapid pace of technology development will make it easier and simpler for him to manage multiple layers of data in the future.

“There’s no shortage of innovation in this area,” he concludes. “I’m sure that in time I will be using the technology without having to think about it. But in the meantime, I have got plenty of field work to be getting on with.”