Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Precision Ag update - a UK & Europe perspective - Part #1

Having just spent most of June in the UK and Europe on a tour organised by CB Norwood, looking into Precision Ag, I thought I’d give an overview of what I saw of interest.

The tour group consisted of a great mix of farmers, contractors, CB Norwood’s managers, from both the South and North Island, Tim Myers (CB Norwood CEO), myself and was run by Paul Collins (CB Norwood Partnership Development Manager) - hats off to him for an excellent job managing the whole event and his team back in NZ.

The first week was spent in the UK, going around farms and visiting the Cereals event near Duxford. There was a real mix of farms from the traditional Estates, to new corporate farms less than 10 years old with huge areas 15,000+ hectares. From the precision ag point of view, it was interesting to see that we are all using the same technologies but for different reasons. EM surveys are used to identify different soil management zones as they are here, but not for irrigation and with little use of the topography data collected at the same time. EM was used for variable intensity of cultivating, and a lot for variable rate seeding. The EM zones are identified and then the soils classified into percentage establishment zones, so then according to your thousand grain seed weight and total population your seed required was automatically adjusted. This combined with using the EM to highlight areas of potentially higher blackgrass burdens - they find much higher levels on heavy soils identified from the EM maps, so they drill at higher seed rates   areas to compete with the blackgrass more. Using variable rate seeding and cultivations the farmers where going far more even looking crops, suppressing the blackgrass marginally more and getting up to 8% increase in yield.

Image 1: Winter wheat VR seed rate from an EM map. 

The EM maps where being used in combination with combine harvester yield maps to create zones for zonal soil sampling rather than grid soil sampling. The advantage there was that you had less samples than grid sampling, so it was cheaper, and you took samples in transects from within each soil zone from the EM map. Most of these farms have no livestock and the fields have been the same size under the same management for a good length of time, which lends itself more to zonal soil sampling.

There was a greater spread use of variable nitrogen from either satellite imagery, drones, N sensor/GreenSeeker type sensors than in New Zealand. The farmers had to use their nitrogen smarter as they had strict limits and timing limitations. This was apparent at the Cereals event on the Yara and Horsch stands to name but two both showing their own real-time sensors.

Image 2: N sensor for real-time VR nitrogen application

Image 3: The Horsch biomass sensor, also for VR N
At Cereals every machinery company seemed to be developing or had its own self propelled sprayer option, from the very basic offering to the other end of the spectrum the Horsch sprayer with its incredible boom technology on the pro plus and nozzle setup, allowing it to follow the crop at a height of just 30cm even on contoured land and almost making it wind proof spraying – with a climate like the UK one, you need to be able to spray at every opportunity you can!

Image 4: The soil pit - a great way to compare root structure in different scenarios

Image 5: There are many different software options in the UK for field inputs and collecting layers of data for smarter farming
It was great to catch up with Jim Wilson and the team from Soil Essentials, one of the few Precision Ag companies who still had a stand at the Cereals Event. The consensus on the Precision Ag front was that there are a lot of interesting and innovative ideas in the pipeline, for growers to use, which is very exciting. 

Image 6: The Soil Essentials team

 All the companies seem to have started from various positions within precision ag but come to the same conclusions on what works best, all of which we are doing here too in New Zealand. Of all the cropping farms there is probably about a 50% uptake in Precision Ag in various forms. Most farms seem to use muck in some form or another to increase organic matter and help with moisture constraints.

The last farm we went to in the UK, was the Beeswax Dyson Farming, owned by the Dyson Company. They had bought over 15,000ha since 2011 and used EM surveys and drones to help them get up to speed on their various soil types to manage them better. They were also heavily involved in environmental schemes like some of the old traditional estates we saw.

Figure 7: Beeswax Dyson Farming, general storage shed

In the next article I will discuss some of the interesting ideas that we came across in Europe.