E-tools agronomists allies
By Andrew Blake
ELECTRONIC communications and access to the internet are transforming the way arable businesses are run. But interpreting the wealth of facts, figures and opinion floating in the ether and applying it correctly needs care, warns an independent West Country agronomist.
"There is no doubt that the web contains a huge amount of material, including agronomic data of every description," says Wilts AICC member Stephen Harrison. "Even discounting all the rubbish, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of agricultural sites containing valuable information."
As senior agronomist and proprietor of Bath-based South West Agronomy, Mr Harrison field-walks more than 4800ha (11,860 acres) for his clients. About half have e-mail, which makes it easy for him to send advance warnings of pests and diseases and provide recommendations electronically.
That leaves more time to visit clients, which he sees as one of the main benefits of the technology. "It means I can devote more of my time to giving detailed technical advice rather than merely advising which crops to grow or which sprays to use.
"I now spend far less of my time printing off records on-farm. Instead I can e-mail the information, allowing growers to build up their own farm records on a PC. Some of my clients also have agronomy software compatible with the Farmaid Multicrop system I use.
About one-third of those with e-mail benefit from a full field-walking to product ordering system. "Recommendations are emailed to the farmer. He makes his product order, which we forward to Crop Advisors (see panel) to access the cheapest supplier."
As part of his service, Mr Harrison has been field-testing DESSAC (Arable Apr 28), a computer-based aid to input decisions. "In my view it needs an awful lot of polishing before it will become a useful tool. Its predictions of crop growth stages and leaf emergence have been quite a way out.
"I find I get on better with the French Positif system – its more usable." Mr Harrison acknowledges he used an early version of the DESSAC program. Later issues incorporate several changes. "But I still think it tries to be almost too precise."
His criticism highlights the risks of relying too heavily on new technology. "You cannot treat it as the gospel."
All such electronic assistance, including that from the web, is only as good as the interpretation placed on it, he says. "We must never lose track of the fact the internet is merely a portal to be switched on and off at will. Its an ally for agronomists, not a substitute.
"I often access web-sites, such as the online herbicide rotation tool at Cyanamids agriCentre (www.agricentre.co.uk) and CSLs Liaison, while I am on farms.
Leaning too heavily on computers and on-line technology could be risky, warns Stephen Harrison. Facts and figures need interpreting carefully.
• E-mail, internet and worldwide web.
• DESSAC, Positif and similar tools
• Digital cameras.
• Satellite crop sensing.
CA is an alliance of independent southern crop consultancy businesses stretching from Kent to Somerset. Operated on an informal basis for the past five years for group buying and as an information source, it was recently formalised and strengthened by the addition of a seventh member.
Together, CA clients farm over 50,000ha (125,000 acres).