Software takes scientific results out to the field
A long-awaited computer
arable tool based on ICM
principles is due for launch
this autumn. Andrew Blake
talks to the man responsible
for marketing it
AFTER six years and £1.2m worth of research, DESSAC software should be ready to roll in September.
A mere scientists dream in 1994, the Decision Support System for Arable Crops has three key offerings, says Tony Williams of DESSAC International and former HGCA chief executive. "We see it as a vehicle for getting valuable scientific information out into the field.
"It will help keep farmers competitive. It will help them to make more environmentally benign decisions; and it will provide audits to meet the requirements of ACCS and other crop assurance schemes."
Based on a core enabling program, DESSAC will have a range of add-on modules to address particular problems. The first will cover wheat disease management. Others in the offing include those for oilseed rape pests and producing spring barley. "The aim is a portfolio of modules covering all key arable decisions."
DESSACs strength is that sound science and fundamental ICM principles underpin it, says Mr Williams. "It will be a pretty powerful tool to help farmers get things right and meet public concerns."
In practice, users access a wide range of farm-specific information through the core program, he explains. "It includes details of crop areas, previous yields and weather. The aim is to avoid having to re-enter a whole lot of data before using each of the decision-making modules."
DESSAC then merges that data with research findings to predict the physical and financial outcome of any combination of grower options. It does so by advanced computer modelling allowing users to pose a series of "what if" queries and get instant answers, says Mr Williams.
"The basis of the wheat disease module is crop canopy work carried out by Notts University and ADAS. The principle is that whilst canopy determines potential crop yield, disease incidence reduces it.
"The wheat module combines four sound models on canopy development, disease development, disease response curves and decision making. There is good science in all of them. Straightforward spreadsheet calculators simply cannot pull in all that science.
"The key question though is whether our models really reflect real life. So we have taken validation very seriously."
Last year the system was used on seven UK sites on a range of varieties to prove that it functioned sensibly and effectively. "The answer was basically yes. But we found for example on yellow rust that it wasnt picking the disease up quickly enough or recommending enough fungicide. However we left it to run to see what it was saying, learn the lessons and re-test it this year."
Other tests with growers and advisers helped iron out potential snags and make it simpler and more user-friendly. "This year we have found some 40 presentational items deserving attention. It is clearly better to find them now rather than after the launch."
A Loughborough University team specialising in making technology easy to apply used such feedback to improve DESSACs acceptability. "One user says its already twice as user-friendly as it was last year."
New products, such as strobilurin fungicides, will have to be built in to the model as quickly as possible, he acknowledges. "Strob-ilurins are in the enlarged list of active ingredients for this year."
However with MAFF already having funded half of DESSAC* and reluctant to spend more, keeping the system up to date depends heavily on industry uptake, Mr Williams admits. "Growers must find it of individual benefit and be prepared to pay for it."
The price of the package has still to be determined. "Originally it was thought that we would market the basic program and modules separately. But there are other options including a subscription basis. That would overcome problems of updating and ensuring users get the benefits of the latest versions."
The initial format is likely to be a CD-ROM, but updating is expected to be over the internet.
*Other funders in the LINK project include HGCA (£0.4m), BBSRC (£130,000) and Farmplan (£70,000 in kind). *
Sound science that helps farmers make the best decisions lies behind DESSAC, say Tony Williams and IACR-Rothamsted program developer Audrey Mayes.
• Scientific decision making.
• Based on computer software.
• Validated for two seasons.
• Autumn 2000 launch.