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User story: Precision farming drive paying dividends for Yorkshire producer

With a firm focus on improving efficiency and producing more profitable crops, Yorkshire Wolds farmers, the Leeson brothers, are constantly refining their precision farming techniques. Farmers Guardian reports.

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The Leesons’ sprayer is just one of their machines using RTK autosteering.

Nearly a decade’s pursuit of greater efficiency and more profitable crops has seen farmers Rob and Mark Leeson take a step-by-step precision farming journey, which has enabled them to steadily improve and refine their farming techniques.

Annual cost savings

Using RTK the Leesons’ save about £19,300 per year, based on current market prices and their four-metre drilling system.


Operational costs - labour, fuel, depreciation of machinery, etc.

  • Drilling = £600
  • Fertilising = £2,200
  • Spraying = £4,900

Input savings

  • Seed = £950
  • Fertiliser = £2,050
  • Chemical = £3,700

Outputs - improved yield due to increased cropping accuracy

  • £4,900

For the Leeson brothers, a large emphasis has been placed on the ability to apply arable inputs such as seed, liquid fertiliser and granular fertiliser at precisely controlled variable rates, enabling them to produce better and more consistent crops. In addition, the precision farming equipment used to achieve these results also makes the task of managing a large arable area with minimal staff less demanding.


The Leesons farm 600 hectares (1,500 acres) of arable land at Kirby Grindalythe in the North Yorkshire Wolds, where chalk and gravel-rich soils support a rotation of feed wheats, barley and oilseed rape, with potatoes included on a six-yearly basis.


With just one full-time employee, the Leeson brothers, who also run a beef suckler herd on 80ha (200 acres) of grassland and a 35,000-bird broiler unit, are limited by the constraints of available man hours. Their efforts in recent years have therefore been focused on making their farming practices more efficient.


For the farm’s arable venture, this focus on efficiencies has resulted in the Leesons investing in various pieces of precision farming equipment which have not only improved the consistency of the crops they grow, but have also made the daily working regime easier and less onerous to manage.


Their first foray into precision farming began in 2008 when they installed a GPS-guided autosteer system on the farm’s combine harvester. Rob Leeson explains: “We wanted to be able to use the autosteer kit on the drill tractor as well, but struggled to get the system to work on both machines due to various compatibility issues.”

Rob Leeson farms 600 hectares (1,500 acres) with his brother Mark.

With the arrival of a new, autosteer-ready tractor a couple of years later, the Leesons decided to take their investment in precision farming a step further.


“With time, fuel and product savings, we had already seen how much benefit a basic autosteer system was to our system, so decided to take the next step by investing in our own RTK base station along with a Topcon autosteer assembly.”


The farm’s RTK mast and base station were supplied by UK Topcon distributor LH Agro which also installed bespoke wiring looms to enable both the sprayer and drilling tractor to be guided by the autosteer system.


In keeping with their ethos of ensuring everything on the farm operates as efficiently as possible, the RTK station is powered by one of the farm’s three wind turbines.


Nick Abbey, sales and technical specialist for LH Agro, says: “It is a simple idea. The turbine was already located within a few hundred yards of where the mast needed to be, so we designed a wiring system which allowed us to draw a power source straight from the turbine.”


Following a detailed site survey to determine the ideal position for the mast to be located, via the use of a mobile telescoping mast, the RTK system was installed by LH Agro in April 2014.


Mr Abbey explains: “The whole farm is now covered by a signal which is accurate down to 6mm, and it is also being used by three neighbouring farms who lease the signal from the Leesons, generating an additional revenue stream.”

The crop sensor produces a visual representation to show where liquid and granular fertilisers have been applied.

Mr Abbey adds: “A typical RTK mast and receiver installation costs about £15,000. The only other charge is an annual fee to Ofcom for a radio license of about £150 per year.


“On a farm such as the Leesons’, you would expect the system to pay for itself in about two years, based on reduced inputs, increased efficiency and yield enhancements.”


Mr Leeson says: “We are now operating most of our arable machines via the RTK system, with cultivations, liquid and granular fertiliser applications, seed drilling and harvesting all done using autosteer. We have also recently moved into the realms of variable rate applications and have installed a Topcon CropSpec canopy sensor to assess the real-time nutrient requirements of our crops.”


In its first season, the sensor – which can be mounted on the farm’s self-propelled sprayer for liquid fertiliser and PGR applications, or the main tractor for granular fertiliser applications – delivered noticeable benefits says Mr Leeson. “Every field on the farm is hilly and rolling to a greater or lesser extent. The application maps produced by the sensor show significantly more fertiliser is applied to the sides of valleys, whereas the valley bottoms and any significant depressions where leached nitrogen naturally accumulates will receive far less N from each pass of the sprayer or fertiliser spreader.”


Mr Leeson estimates that the sensor alters N applications by an average of 25 per cent across the farm’s total acreage, with the most extreme variances differing by as much as 50 per cent.


“As an example, if our target application rate is 100 litres per hectare, the actual upper and lower limits could be as high as 150 litres/ha and as low as 50 litres/ha depending on the condition of the crop,” says Mr Leeson.

 

“We are not necessarily using any less fertiliser, but what we are using is being applied more accurately and to better effect. As a result, our crops are much more even and are therefore easier to harvest.”

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