Cereals prize proves valuable to Lincolnshire grower

Use of precision technology is increasing rapidly. Mike Abram visits a Lincolnshire grower who won an N Sensor at Cereals 2008

 Want to see how easy it is to operate the N Sensor? Hear Clive Blacker explain its operation and see it in action in our video

Preventing lodging on the fenland parts of George Atkinson’s Lincolnshire farm is the key test for Yara‘s N Sensor machine, which helps growers apply fertilisers variably.

“Lodging is public enemy number one for us in both wheat and oilseed rape on the fenland, so reducing it is key,” he says.

The user interface for setting up the N Sensor has proved easy to use.
Mr Atkinson won the use of a “blue” classic N Sensor in a draw at Cereals 2008, and later upgraded to the “white” ALS model, which has its own light source, so it can be used without natural light.

Before the first application to oilseed rape was made, Mr Atkinson and spreader operator Martyn Hall underwent a day’s comprehensive training, courtesy of Clive Blacker’s Precision Decisions, which provides all the technical support for N Sensor growers.

“It is critical that the operator has the training,” says Yara’s Mark Tucker. “He has to be sure of why and what you are trying to do.”

The training explained the different programmes on the N Sensor, how it worked, what it would do, and how to manage all the data it produced, says Mr Atkinson.

Like many first-time users, he has chosen to keep it simple this year by setting a target rate for N applications, giving parameters for the amount rates could be varied. “We haven’t been too adventurous – we needed to learn to trust it.”

But it has been “surprisingly” easy to use, says Mr Atkinson. “We’ve used it on every acre.” He has been particularly pleased, so far, with the performance on the fenland, where soil types vary enormously, even on the same field. “The crops do look more even,” he adds.


Less lodging is George Atkinson’s primary aim from his first year with the N Sensor.

Mr Atkinson hopes that by variably applying fertiliser on those fields, and using other management tools, that he will be able to achieve a better standing crop and go for yield more optimally on the poorer parts of the field. It might also lead to using less nitrogen, he adds.

It is too early to judge how effective the Sensor has been this season, Mr Atkinson acknowledges, but he has been sufficiently impressed to want to carry on using the system next season – and to be braver.

“I want to start using the ‘absolute’ oilseed rape programme [see panel] next season,” he says.



2 blocks of land

Folkingham: heavy land (240ft above sea level)

Haconby Fen: variable soils, more fertile (7ft above sea level)

45% wheat – mostly Group 4 feed

45% oilseed rape – Excalibur, semi-dwarf hybrids, Kalif

10% winter beans

Next year, Mr Atkinson will have to pay to use the N Sensor. The classic version costs £15,000 to buy, the ALS version £25,000. Yara customers can also lease both types for £3500 and £5500 a year, respectively, which may be a sensible option because it doesn’t lock a grower into a particular machine as the technology progresses.

A feasibility study based on Mr Atkinson’s average yields suggests it should more than pay for itself, assuming he sees the same 3.5% average yield response that Yara has achieved in its trials.

Based on a wheat price of £120/t and £260/t for oilseed rape, the extra production would result in a profit of £25,000 a year on Mr Atkinson’s farm, according to Mr Blacker’s calculations using a feasibility spreadsheet available on Yara’s website (fert.yara.co.uk).

“Even using just a 1% yield response, the profit would be £2500 a year.”

The number of growers using N Sensors has taken off in the past two years, says Yara’s Mark Tucker.

A total of 185 are currently in use, with 65-70 of those the new ALS type. In the past year alone, 46 ALS and 20 passive models were either bought or rented by growers, he says, with a similar number introduced the year before.

Fertiliser and grain prices have also been a major factor, says Mr Tucker. “Both low grain prices and high fertiliser prices lead to growers wanting to do the job better, and improve their fertiliser efficiency.”

The reasons for the move are quite simple, Mr Blacker adds. “It is an acceptance of the technology, which has become easier to use, and that the N Sensor is now respected by farmers. They know it does what it says it will do, because of the huge amount of detailed research underpinning it.”

New applications for the N Sensor have also helped broaden its appeal, such as the “absolute” application rates for oilseed rape.

That programme differs from the target rate version in that the N Sensor, not the user, decides what rate of fertiliser should be applied, says Mr Tucker. Instead, the user inputs information, such as soil type, date and crop growth stage, for the Sensor to use to decide on rate.

Detailed Yara research goes into calibrating the N Sensor into making the right recommendation, says Mr Blacker. The firm has 12 sites on which it carries out trials investigating different varieties, seed and nitrogen rates a year. “It all helps it know what to apply for that size crop and colour.”

As well as nitrogen fertiliser recommendations, the N Sensor can be used for variably applying growth regulators, and for spotting general problems in crops. “Potato growers, in particular, use it for that, as well as for variably applying desiccants,” says Mr Blacker.

The machine could also be used to spot areas where higher seed rates might be beneficial. “By using maps generated in previous crops, you can find areas of poor germination and start using higher seed rates in those areas,” he adds.