Wednesday 11 February 2015

Tools For Growing Farm Profitability

Today I’m taking writer’s liberty and changing tack slightly. While we’ve been talking about variability and how to manage it and irrigation efficiency I’m going to share some insights from the knowledgeable Jim Wilson of Soil Essentials in the UK who is currently out in NZ sharing his almost 20 years of Precision Agriculture (PA) insights from the other side of the world with us.

This morning the Foundation for Arable Research held a field day at Craige Mackenzie’s place near Methven to talk about ‘Practical use of Precision Agriculture: A global perspective’. One of the main questions from farmers this morning was “where do I start with PA?”. While there are many different places that someone can start their PA journey depending on what they’re most interested in and where they see the most benefit the moral of the story today was to start where you’d see the most benefit or return from your investment. If the biggest expense to your business is fixed costs (eg labour, diesel etc for planting etc) then GPS and Autosteer is the likely starting point for you. If your biggest cost is your fertiliser bill then, grid sampling and variable rate fertiliser is likely the best starting point for you and if the cost of water and irrigation one of the biggest costs to your business, then EM Surveying and variable rate irrigation are likely your starting point. The key is to know your business and where your biggest & fastest gains can be made from utilising these PA techniques. Precision Ag at the end of the day is about fully utilising all of these tools and technologies to MAXIMISE ON FARM PROFITABILITY.

Jim Wilson & Craige Mackenzie up the Mt Hutt skifield access road
 assessing the variability over the Canterbury Plains.

Another key theme that came from today was the use of yield mapping. While Jim said that adoption of yield mapping is still growing with his customers and in the UK in general, he emphasised that it was one of the most important layers of information on a cropping farm to help identify and quantify areas of yield variability and what that variability is. He said it was also a really important layer particularly for Scottish farmers (as you could imagine) they don’t like to spend money where it doesn't make them any. The yield maps enable them to identify areas of interest and manage them accordingly.

Jim Wilson talking at FAR’s field day on Precision Agriculture with soil variability
 and topography variability in the background.

Other PA techniques that are used widely in Jim’s area of the world are grid soil sampling and variable rate seeding. Grid soil sampling is where a soil core is taken in a uniform fashion across a paddock at either 4 samples per hectare for pH or 1 sample per hectare for phosphorus, potassisum  magnesium,  calcium & sulphur. This allows them to then variable rate apply fertiliser based on these soil test results.  Variable rate lime application based on pH test results is very common in the UK and has a significant return on investment, usually resulting in savings of lime of approximately 50%. Variable rate seeding on the other hand is where the seeding rate is varied according to soil type and the soil’s yield potential. Heavier soil typically gets a higher seed rate than lighter soil where less seeds are planted to allow less competition between the plants and optimally more seed fill per plant.

All of these techniques talked about today by Jim are by no means new to New Zealand’s precision ag scene, however some are done to varying degrees here.

So, what’s the take home messages from today?
  1. Start your Precision Ag journey with what will give you the biggest financial change
  2. Use your yield maps and turn them into something other than pretty wallpaper – talk to someone in the know on how they can be made useful J