Precision farming has shown significant benefits for farmers in helping them to gather data on a field-by-field basis and therefore understand and manage their crops more effectively. High resolution imagery collected using advanced cameras on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) increases precision further and offers greater flexibility.
Drones can carry a camera which can provide 3.5cm resolution at 120 metres flying height, with the resulting images used to create maps showing establishment, biomass, weeds and disease and to carry out plant counts.
Agrovista uses its MaplT Pro software to process data captured by a drone flight from several passes during the season to create field maps. These can be used for variable rate drilling and nitrogen application, and even patch spraying weeds with high resolution accuracy.
Savock Farms is 10 miles north of Aberdeen on the east coast, farming 1,400ha owned, leased and under contract farming agreements. Cropping encompasses wheat, malting barley, winter oilseed rape, winter rye, triticale, grass silage and gluten-free oats.
Owner Andrew Booth says: "We are on mainly heavy land, which is challenging in a wet year but can perform for you when treated right, and 60% of the land area we farm is dedicated to AD feedstock crops with the remainder down to arable."
Crops go to a variety of markets - wheat is for feed or distilling, malting barley on contract for maltsters, oilseed rape for crushing and gluten-free oats are for a number of local and export markets.
"We intend to expand in this area and work more closely with the end user in this exciting specialised market," says Mr Booth. "Our mindset to farming has changed in the last 12 months due to the introduction of AD crops. Along with the challenges, it has presented a number of opportunities and benefits for the farm including a more spread out harvest and access to digestate."
With five full-time and two seasonal employees, he works closely with Agrovista on the contract farming area, from field walking to handling big data.
Mr Booth says he has taken a strong interest in precision farming, including yield and soil mapping and variable rate seeding and N, P and K fertiliser spreading.
“I am keen to increase the precision of our nutrient applications and we have used the Isaria and Yara N sensors in the past to try to match applications to crop requirements.”
Admitting he is a ‘sucker for gadgets’, Mr Booth researched the use of drones in agricultural publications and on social media before investigating what Agrovista had to offer in this area.
In 2016 he used the Agrovista drone service for the first time to generate variable rate N maps.
“We were able to tailor the N rates before going into the field rather than finding out at the end what the sensor had done. This gave us more flexibility to make decisions such as cutting the rate back in the poorest areas which do not have yield potential, whereas the sensor would have put the highest rate on these areas,” Mr Booth says.
“In addition, we had the advantage the spreader operator could just get on with spreading fertiliser with pre-loaded prescription maps, without having to operate a secondary sensor as well."
Agrovista also offered a quick turnaround, adding convenience and ensuring the data was current and accurate. Fields were flown one day and the maps were available the next morning. Data from the previous season was also used by Agrovista to compare to that year’s establishment.
“We are able to walk the oilseed rape in E1/2/3 and compare to last year’s drone maps, helping assess field variability and look for limiting factors. So it’s useful for morethan just the variable N.”
He adds: “Like all new information and mapping systems, it takes a moment to get your head around but it is self-explanatory and available on Axis/MapIt Pro to view, which is very user-friendly.”
Savock Farms has also used the drone maps to study field boundaries, vermin damage anddrainage issues, and is looking to expand its use of the technology in 2018.
“It will be particularly exciting to use it on grass silage ground which is destined for AD feedstock this year.”
Mr Booth says there are added benefits of using drone mapping compared to previous procedures.
“It offers real time data compared to some systems, and there are no issues with cloud cover. It’s also easier for the operator to use because Agrovista provides prescription maps which are simply programmed into the spreader."
“We have also received excellent support from Agrovista which will come in useful as we increase the acreage. All the guys we deal with at Agrovista have a passion and strong knowledge of precision farming so we have no complaints at all.”
Despite the hands-on nature of the service, Mr Booth says it also represents value for money, at £3/ha for the end-to-end service. And with his enthusiasm for gadgets is he planning to take over the pilot’s role in the future?
“We have our own drone for hobby use, but I will let Agrovista continue to do the crop flights as they have the CAA approval and we are too busy at that time of year.”
Lewis McKerrow, Head of precision technology
Agrovista offers drone imaging as part of its agronomy portfolio, either as a full service using its quadcopters, or where farmers have their own UAV, assisting them to set it up, fly it safely and use software to analyse the data.
The firm’s head of precision technology, Lewis McKerrow, explains: “The high resolution images produced by cameras mounted on drones clearly show in-field variation and the data can be used for tasks from variable rate applications to assessment of crop damage.”
Drone images have been shown to be more consistent than those produced by satellites, and are not affected by the UK’s variable cloud cover, he points out. “A drone can fly below the cloud, so it is more flexible and offers higher resolution images.”
Currently, most customers use Agrovista’s drones and operators, although Mr McKerrow says he expects the proportion of farmers using their own drones to grow, depending on legislation.
In 2017, Agrovista made 500 UAV flights covering 7,000ha, and Mr McKerrowsays many farmers start off with a specific application in mind but then see further uses for the service.
“This year we have more trained operators and drones so have the capacity to increase the area considerably,” he says.
While farmers increasingly embrace technology, Agrovista can offer an end-to-end package, producing output data for a fertiliser spreader, for example. For other customers the maps become part of theirmanagement systems,working with existing farm software.
“There are applications for vegetable crops and grassland as well as the arable work,” says Mr McKerrow.
“Plant counts were added in 2017 and our research and development team is looking at mapping for potatoes. We have even been asked to count pumpkins and plan to refine this to sizing them this year.”