20 November 1998


FARMING moved into the space age in 1991 with the first yield mapping demonstration, but since then the stream of new precision farming developments seems to be outpacing the enthusiasm of farmers for using the new technology.

In technical terms the ability to use signals travelling more than 12,000 miles from space satellites to help map yield differences in a field of wheat must be one of the most dramatic developments the farming industry has ever seen. Similar technology is now available to bring increased precision to other jobs including fertiliser spreading, herbicide spraying and soil mapping.

And more developments are still arriving. The technology is already available to produce yield maps for potatoes, sugar beet and other root crops, and forage harvesting could be next in line for yield mapping.

While the technology is advancing rapidly, sales figures suggest that demand is growing more slowly. Massey Ferguson, the company which organised the 1991 demonstration, began selling yield mapping equipment in the following year – well ahead of their rivals.

Since then the number of combines equipped for yield mapping on UK farms has grown slowly to reach an estimated 500 for the 1998 harvest, according to Massey Ferguson combine harvester specialist Jim Potter.

Clear lead lost

The estimate, which includes combines of all makes, is lower than some earlier forecasts suggested and it probably means that UK farmers have lost the clear lead they had established in using yield mapping technology. Germany has probably overtaken the UK, while American and Danish sales are also said to be expanding strongly.

"There are two main reasons why the market has not grown more rapidly," says Mr Potter. "Many farmers thought it would all be very difficult and they would not be able to cope with the technology, but I think we have been able to de-mystify yield mapping and show you dont have to be a boffin to produce yield maps.

"The other problem which discourages some farmers, is understanding how to use the information the yield maps provide, and this is an area we will be emphasising in the future. I think the agronomy crew have some catching up to do in order to help farmers make maximum use of their yield maps."

A third problem this year is the cost of the equipment for yield mapping at a time when most farmers are putting strict limits on their machinery investment. For the Massey Ferguson system this includes £4000 for the yield monitor – which most customers buy anyway, plus £6250 for mapping equipment on the combine and £1500 for software to use in an existing computer.

"Although the market is not growing as fast as some people expected, the fact remains that it is continuing to expand, and there is also a big increase in the number of existing yield mapping customers who are moving on to using GPS for differential fertiliser application. These are not enthusiasts who just want to play with new technology – we are talking about straightforward commercial farmers who see yield mapping as a way to improve efficiency," insists Mr Potter.

Yield mapping is a relatively recent development from Claas, but Paul Moss, Claas UK product specialist, says more precision farming technology could be available from Germany. Claas has a separate section specialising in precision farming systems, and these already include soil mapping and differential fertiliser spreading as well as yield mapping.

Respond to changes

"At this stage most of the developments are designed for contractors in Germany, which is quite a specialised market," he says. "But we are in a very good position to respond to changing demands in the UK and can introduce additional programmes as the demand develops."

The idea that precision farming technology arrived before most UK farmers were ready to use it is supported by Essex-based ADAS mechanisation specialist John Bailey.

"We certainly hear a lot about developments such as yield mapping, but I dont meet many farmers who are actually using this sort of technology. I think there are other ways farmers can improve efficiency without investing in GPS equipment. I am talking about simple housekeeping improvements which are not very exciting, but they cost very little and can bring a significant gain in efficiency.

"But I am not suggesting that yield mapping doesnt have a future," he says. "I am sure this is the way farming will continue to develop, and I am also sure there are some farmers who are already highly-efficient and ready to use the additional information and opportunities offered by precision farming technology." &#42

Massey Ferguson was the first company to offer a yield-mapping option for its combines in 1991. Since then the total number of combines of all makes equipped with such technology has grown

to 500. But the uptake has now slowed, for a variety of reasons, and other countries are thought

to be pulling ahead of the UK, especially Germany.

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