Sunday, November 19, 2017

Why it pays to be precise

July 4, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

MidFrmr-190617-Williamson

Precision agriculture might not make a bad farm good – but it can make a good farm better, says Andrew Williamson. Simon Wragg reports.

Precision agriculture offers a payback of £3 for every £1 invested in the targeted use of inputs, yield mapping and satellite guidance for machinery, says Nuffield scholar and farmer Andrew Williamson, of Shropshire-based Beddoes & Williamson.

Mr Williamson has a pragmatic understanding of precision agriculture – also known as precision farming – and has seen the benefit it can deliver over the past decade at Upper Overton Farm, near Bridgnorth, Shropshire.

“The impetus for me to get involved came in 2007. I’d been away at university and then travelled before returning home,” he explains. “With my father, John, we farmed less than 150ha but then took on another 200ha allowing us to achieve economies of scale.”

A visit to the Cereals event that same year sparked a conversation over targeted fertiliser use with Clive Blacker – later to become the founder of Yorkshire-based precision agriculture facilitator Precision Decisions.

“On the back of that conversation we started gathering yield mapping data off our combine to identify which parts of each field were performing and those that weren’t.”

Huge impact

Satellite-guided auto-steering was adopted shortly afterwards (the farm latterly hosts a commercial RTK base station). “Removing overlap, as an example, had a huge impact on improving all in-field operations. If pushed I’d suggest it’s added 4-8% to crop gross margin.”

A whole farm survey to establish nutrient indices for N, P and K was completed. Soil conductivity tests were added later to identify soil characteristics. These layers of data provided a better understanding of what was affecting crop performance across each field.

“The reality is there’s areas which are just not profitable to crop. It may be due to soil type, poor drainage, shading, topography – a host of factors – but these are better off out of the system.”

Having data is one thing, but being able to interrogate it matters most, he suggests. For example, soil index data for nutrients may suggest levels are adequate but yield maps may show a crop still under-performs.

Fertiliser policy

“What’s key is the amount of nutrient available immediately and that influences our fertiliser policy,” explains Mr Williamson.

Contrary to some growers expectations, the use of data gathered for decision-making may not see the level of any given input reduce. Instead, targeted use can improve yield and, potentially, profitability, he adds.

In 2014 Mr Williamson undertook his Nuffield study visiting Canada, USA, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia. He concluded that precision agriculture could increase output, was less likely to adopted in countries where farm labour was plentiful and cheap, and would not make a bad farm good – but it could make a good farm better.

“Put into context, the adoption of precision agriculture across the UK will have very little impact on an ability to feed a growing world population. The simple truth is even if we could produce more the people in countries where starvation is rife still couldn’t afford our food.”

Take risks

“What we can do for them is to take risks and try new systems of production to improve efficiency which one day they may be able to implement.”

And it’s not all clear cut for UK growers. Few if any users or advocates of precision agriculture have been able to quantify definitively the financial benefit achievable on a commercial whole farm basis.

“There are simply too many variables. What I have been able to calculate after 10 years of using precision agriculture is for every £1 invested in equipment or mapping has delivered a return of £3 in real terms.”

Looking at the current 364ha (900ac) business – Beddoes & Williamson which includes his mother, Ann, as a third partner – precision agriculture has seen tramlines eliminated at drilling, unproductive areas grassed down, and more emphasis placed on interrogating data to influence management decisions.

“And I believe great improvements are yet to come with the spectral mapping of weeds to influence seed rates and targeted use of chemicals,” he says.

Greater sharing

Holistically, agriculture stands to benefit by greater sharing of data on aspects of precision agriculture, he adds. “There is too much emphasis on ‘owing’ data currently. The true value comes through the analysis of it; as an industry we’ve to get over that hurdle.”

With 130ha (321ac) of feed wheat – mainly Groups 4s, 50ha (123ac) of oilseed rape, 54ha (133ac) of winter oats and 40ha (99ac) of spring beans grown for human consumption, 42ha (104ac) of spring barley for malting, and 14ha (35ac) of winter barley grown for feed there is potential to further improve performance, he suggests.

Other steps have already been taken. Grassland is let out having dispersed both suckler and sheep enterprises due to low profitability. Machinery is shared with an arable neighbour – Tom Giles – reducing overall operating charges on a per acre basis.

“I wouldn’t want to farm without using precision agriculture principles. And I firmly believe if you’re going to do it you have to do it across the whole farm. Data is key to identify variation in crop performance and, importantly, what is causing it.”

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