One Yorkshire farmer is making his first foray into precision farming with real-time sensing technology to help him use nitrogen more accurately and improve yields. Teresa Rush reports.
Advances in geo-informatics offer the potential for almost unimagined precision in the way we farm. But often the challenge is how to use these new technologies to deliver real benefits in practical farming situations.
That has been the issue for Yorkshire farmer Neil Welburn who, although interested in and well informed on precision farming technologies, has continued to question their value to the bottom line of his farming business. But that looks set to change.
Mr Welburn farms 243 hectares at Cross Hill Farm, Balne, near Goole, with his wife Deirdre, son Chris and daughter Claire. He is clearly proud to describe the arable and beef unit as a family farm, but equally is frank in his observation that changes have been required to ensure his son and daughter could come into the business after college. The most significant of these has been the setting up of what today is a 600-head bull beef unit, run by his son Chris.
On a wide range of soil types, from blowing sands through to heavy clays, and with a complex cropping programme taking in 12 different crops, the arable enterprise would appear well-placed to benefit from precision farming approaches.
Yet, until recently, Mr Welburn has been ’sceptical of sensors’ as he puts it. He does, however, admit to a longstanding interest in the concept of variable rate applications, for seed and fertiliser in particular, but where these have been made to date it has been done using visual assessment of his crops as a guide and using the forward speed of the tractor to achieve the variation.
And the approach has served him pretty well. Winter wheat yields on the farm last harvest averaged 10.3 tonnes/ha and winter oilseed rape 3.7t/ha.
However, last season Mr Welburn took a first step along the road to adopting precision technology by becoming one of a group of farmers involved in developing the use of the Isaria precision input system in the UK, as part of a project to enable more accurate N fertiliser and PGR management through real-time decision-making in the field. Among the project partners are precision farming proponent and farmer Chris Harry-Thomas, fertiliser business GrowHow, ADAS and others (see ’Isaria project partners’ panel).
The obvious question to put to Mr Welburn is: why? And the answer comes readily.
“My aim is to improve yields. I think my crops could be pushed harder,” he says.
All of the wheats grown on-farm are first wheats, with Horatio, Claire, Leeds and Solo making up the variety mix. The target yield is 10t/ha, but while Mr Welburn achieved this yield as an average last harvest, he feels he could improve on the consistency of yields across his wheat crop, although the wide range of soil types is a challenge. “I do feel the newer varieties need more N,” he adds.
His first encounter with Isaria was at Agritechnica in 2012 and he is one of the first growers in the UK to use the system under the new project, which is funded under the Government’s AgriTech strategy.
In 2014 he used the technology on 81ha of his own wheat, 40.5ha each of Volume hybrid barley and hybrid oilseed rape (DK Cabernet and Incentive) and about 405ha of contract work across 12 farms.
He experimented with the system’s ‘absolute’ and ‘two point’ modes in his wheat and the latter calibration in barley and oilseed rape.
GrowHow UK, ADAS UK, Precise Crop Nutrition, Patchwork Technology, Syngenta, Chris Harry-Thomas Consultancy, Hill Court Farm Research
“My aim is to move nitrogen to where it is going to work best – and not waste it. We are trying for more yield, rather than saving costs,” says Mr Welburn.
A particular test for the system is his use of significant quantities of farmyeard manure – from the beef unit and bought-in – and biosolids (a high potash sewage sludge plus green waste).
“We are trying to put the manure on pre-oilseed rape and post-oilseed rape and on the maize land. We muck out every time we sell cattle. I am trying to get the rape off to a good start and the wheat off to a good start to get away from the slugs after the rape.” Farmyard manure application rates are typically 25-35t/ha.
His experiences to date with Isaria have been on the whole positive, although he admits it has been difficult at times to resist ‘tinkering’ with application rates when the sensor’s assessment of N requirement differed from his experience or instinct.
“The thing I found difficult was when it wasn’t putting on what I wanted to,” he says.
He typically makes three, sometimes four, nitrogen applications to his wheat and used Isaria last season for the second and third dressings.
“We could see it worked with one [pass] and certainly two scans help even crops up,” he says.
“In barley and OSR we do two point mode. You scan what you would classify as a poor area and then you decide what nitrogen you want to put on that poor area and then you scan a better area and from that it will work out the application rate.
“We were growing hybrid barley last year, so I tried to close the parameters up to the Syngenta recommendation but I wanted also to use the Isaria to even it up. We put fairly tight parameters on it but we did vary it and we did 3.75t/acre of barley last year, so I’m happy with that.”
Some of the variations in N applications generated by the system have been surprising, he says.
“We’ve two fields of oilseed rape I wish I had photographed pre-fert spreading last year. In one field it [Isaria] put 177kg/ha on and in another 451kg/ha of 34.5N.
“The field we put the lower amount on has been manured every year since 2002 and was very even. The other field was very variable. We used Isaria on a two point scan. I would probably have put 200-220kg [of 34.5N] on the 177kg area and I wouldn’t have gone any higher than 380kg in the other field.
“At flowering we couldn’t believe how even both fields were. One did 1.49t/acre, the other 1.51t/acre over the weighbridge.”
He says his first season’s experience can best be illustrated by the speed of the combining last harvest.
“In a normal year I would be driving at between 3.5-5kph, driving to the loss monitor. Last year I couldn’t vary outside 3.9-4.1kph without affecting the yield loss. The crops were even,” he says.
After one season’s use, he is leaning towards favouring the two point mode. One of the challenges of the ‘absolute’ mode is assessing the total amount of fertiliser which is going to be applied – particularly significant if fertiliser has to be carted over any distance, he says.
“I like the two point mode because it gives me more control.
"Absolute works entirely on algorithms – Isaria works out how much the crops needs to achieve the target tonnage.”
Plans for this season include making better use of Isaria as a scanning tool.
“I want to get the frame on the sprayer. We are perhaps missing a trick. We perhaps should be putting it on the sprayer more and scanning when I’m not actually spreading fertiliser, and building up a picture of the crop.”
Maize, winter barley, winter wheat, oilseed rape, spring beans, sugar beet, grass (two-year leys for black-grass control), potatoes (land swap), carrots, peas, parsnips (land swap)