Digital farm network launched to improve precision farming

A network of digital technology farms is being launched this season comprising nine initial growers and their agronomists, with the aim of cutting costs via more targeted applications of inputs such as seed and fertiliser.

The initiative, set up by agronomy company Agrii, aims to help growers already using digital technologies, but who are faced with ever-rising costs, yield plateaus and increasing legislative and climatic pressures.

Agrii managing director Jim Rennie says that precision farming and digital agronomy will have an increasingly important role to play in helping tackle these key issues.

See also: How a grower achieved best margin with £105/ha fungicide spend

“The reality is crop margins are small, input costs are rising, and yields have flatlined for the past 20 years. Without the use of genetically modified crops which have the potential to drive yield forward, we cannot increase this line,” he says.

Benefits of precision farming and digital agronomy

  • Save costs through better targeted inputs
  • Understand crop yield potential earlier in the season
  • Identify agronomy issues earlier than with the naked eye
  • Take more human error out of the equation
  • Have better tools to support decision making
  • Reduce time spent managing field operations
  • Provide cost of production and gross margin maps
  • Improve performance across every part of the field 

Mr Rennie sees precision farming having an important role in helping growers face tougher financial times ahead within a “public money for public good” policy of moving away from area-based subsidies.

Digital technologies can identify poorer-performing areas, such as headlands, via the use of yield, cost of production and gross margin maps, for environmental schemes which may offer better returns than traditional cropping.

“The inputs saved from not cropping poorer-performing areas can be applied to the remaining field to enhance yields on more productive land, so overall yields aren’t lowered, while poorer-performing areas can be planted to bird cover or used for afforestation,” he adds.

Mr Rennie adds that even keen technology users say they need better-researched evidence of the value of technologies such as variable rate seeding and fertilisation, better advice on making them work together, and better support in matching them to their own farm.

Farm network

Therefore, the new farm network aims to bridge the intelligence gap in data use, by assessing digital technologies, demonstrating their profitability, and reducing time spent managing field operations.

The trial farms are spread from Somerset and Wiltshire in the South West, up to Herefordshire and Staffordshire and across to Bedfordshire, Essex and Lincolnshire in the East; and into the North,Yorkshire and Midlothian in Scotland.

Lucy Cottingham, the group’s digital agronomy development manager, says the farms are looking at variable-rate drilling, variable-rate nitrogen and optimised nutrient applications for winter wheat.

“We also have variable rate drilling trials with spring barley, wheat and oats. In each case, we are comparing the technologies with standard farm-based regimes alongside one another in fields with similar ranges of soil type and conditions,” says Ms Cottingham.

All farms are supported by the firm’s Rhiza digital agronomy business and Contour platform where soils are mapped into management zones and are equipped with satellite technology, high-resolution sensors and local weather data.

A series of parallel field-scale trials will take place each season, using field data analysis from crop consultants Adas monitoring as many crop parameters as possible.

“All this information will be processed using the Adas Agronomics model to reliably prove yield effects down to 0.1t/ha,” she adds.

Case study: Bedfordia Farms trial

Farm Facts

  • 2,450ha in north Bedfordshire
  • 2,150ha arable cropping includes wheat, oilseed rape, winter beans and spring barley
  • Hanslope chalky boulder clay
  • High-quality milling wheat
  • 27,000t grain storage
  • Grain laboratory
  • 1,100 breeding sows

One farm participating in the network is Bedfordia Farms in north Bedfordshire, where the mixed business farms 2,450ha across predominately heavy Hanslope chalky boulder clay soils.

Ian Rudge, the farm’s arable and operations manager, hopes that by joining the network he can gain a deeper insight into soil variance and crop nutrition and how this affects germination and yield.

“We are currently not getting our nutrition management right across the board, but this technology will allow us to tailor inputs to crop needs,” he says.

Yield mapping started in 2004 and he highlights that variable-rate systems are difficult to manage on big estates as there are many staff members and different technologies.

“There has also been no data to quantify a financial return on the use of variable rates, so we don’t know if it’s worthwhile,” he says.

With the help of the new network, the farm has identified areas which are the most profitable and has cut the number of digital systems used on farm from eight to three.

A combination of John Deere Agri Management Solution, Gatekeeper for accurate record-keeping, and Rhiza for accurate identification and addressing of variable rate applications is used on the farm.

The technology is used across Claas, JCB, John Deere and Horsch systems and all communicate with each other via the central John Deere platform to work out how to apply variable rate-nitrogen, and seeding rates.