Farm managers give the lowdown on precision technology

Precision farming technology is now a vital tool for farm managers.

We asked Farmers Weekly Award winners of the Farm Manager of the Year category how precision kit and techniques help them.

We also get the view from a Nuffield schollar who is currently studying precision techniques and their ability to feed the world.

Charlie Russell, Glenapp Estate, Ayrshire – Farm Manager winner 2011, Overall Farmer of the Year winner, 2011

Soil testing and development

We have used GPS EC soil testing and now apply lime, P and K all at variable rate through a KRM trailed Bredal spreader onto all out grassland.

One of the challenges we have at Glenapp is in developing our soils which have a massive variation of fertility and type within the field boundaries.

Soil Quest’s EC soil test has really given us the tools to allocate FYM, lime, P and K to the areas that need it to develop the soil fertility further and address the requirements of the crop.

What we are seeing in the last two years are much more even grass growth, increases in annual yields and overall grass and sward quality.

Further development with auto steer are being considered as I am convinced it will help with machine efficiency and operator fatigue with most land based operations.

John  Baker, Thoresby Estate, Nottinghamshire – Farm Manager of the Year 2012

Sprayers and drilling

We use two Trimble RTK units with FMX units – used to mark out beds for roots, to drill oilseed rape and sugar beet, primary cultivations and for cereal drilling with Vaderstaads. 

We also have three FMX kits on the sprayers with nine section auto shut offs and use SOYL mapping and apply variable rate nitrogen through Amazon Amatron and SOYL satellite imagery.

Combine steering was tried but we have given up on that at the moment.

Our best use of precision kit is RTK drilling of sugar beet as we also have single row shut off which looks good and is also very efficient.

The business benefits from all of this through less waste through under and overdosing of inputs as we are now operating to a full 24m every time – operators were already skilled in this but the kit ensures absolute consistency.  

This is not only saves costs but reduces the risk of pesticide residues in veg crops. I’m obsessive about order so I love the straight lines too.

Richard Price, Lowther Park Farms, Cumbria – Farm Manager Winner 2013

Soil quality

We are striving for efficiency when growing our arable and grass crops in Cumbria. Having developed an extensive remediation of ploughable land on the estate, a number of techniques have allowed us to use technology and think in an innovative way.

Firstly, we have entered the 400 ploughable arable hectares and 140ha of silage/ forage area into the SOYL system at a cost of £22/ha. There is no point using applications of fertiliser and lime when we aren’t aware of what the soil is doing and what is needed.

It is very easy to invest in lots of toys that perhaps aren’t necessary. We wanted to concentrate on nitrogen, lime, P and K. We expect a 23 month pay back on this system.

High yields are difficult to achieve in the north with shorter weather windows and in excess of 1900mm (75in) of rain, so efficient application is essential. We have invested in a Trimble unit, which is easy to move between the drilling tractor and self-propelled sprayer.

This also links in with gatekeeper in the office for accurate costings, where future investments can be decided.

Controlled traffic is also a major issue, it’s important to keep wheelings in the same place and avoid compaction where possible for even regrowth so the swards are available to weaned lambs. Simple discipline is also required amongst tractor drivers removing bales.

Andrew Williamson, Nuffield Scholar currently studying precision techniques

Precision agriculture tools

I am an arable farmer from Shropshire, with a rotation of barley, osr, wheat and oats. We have been using precision agriculture (PA) since 2007, when we started yield mapping and target soil sampling.

The yield maps are use to create prescription off-take maps for phosphate and potash to apply in the next crop. We also use a Yara N-Sensor to apply a variable rate of nitrogen.

We have used electromagnetic (EM) scans to identify different soil types, and used this layer of data to create variable rate seed maps to try to improve our crop establishment. Our main tractors use auto steer, our sprayer has auto section control and auto boom height.

All of the different aspects of PA we use have individual gains, but auto steer probably gives us the most advantages. Due to production efficiency, and allowing the operator to concentrate on the job they are doing and not where they are driving. It also means that if the tramlines are established accurately all subsequent passes will also be accurate.

Variable rate application of fertiliser has allowed us to make some savings, but more importantly the fertiliser is allocated to the right areas of the field at the right amount, which makes economical and environmental sense.

One of the main challenges with PA is managing data, this is one of the focuses of my study. In the future the use of cloud systems to transfer data from machines to the office, or mobile devices and back again will be a huge benefit to the management of our farming system.

Another future use of PA will be weed identification and site specific in-crop treatments, and it could have a big role in the control of problem weeds, such as blackgrass and other grass weeds.