Precision farming: Where next for UK farmers?

Progress in precision ag has come on leaps and bounds
Progress in precision ag has come on leaps and bounds

As steering systems have become commonplace on many UK arable farms, we speak to precision farming firm Vantage to find out what the next step towards precision agriculture will be.

A decade ago the idea of GPS driven autosteer systems was a relatively novel one to most farmers across the country.

Yet now they are widely used on arable setups and many machines come with their own inbuilt package.

The technology that delivers these systems has developed rapidly, meaning it is now possible to receive accuracy to 2.5cm by satellite throughout the UK.

Clearly progress in precision farming has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, but where is it going now?

Data interpretation

Vantage are a subsidiary of Trimble Agriculture, a Cambridge based specialist in precision farming, and were the first company to install machine steering systems in this country.

Their national sales manager is Mark Griffiths, who explained that how data is used will hold the key to future efficiency.

"Data has become a buzz word in many industries including agriculture, but we believe that there is no value in data itself, the value is delivered by the interpretation of the data," he said.

Mark has seen recent progress on farms linking up data in the field with the office and vice versa, this he says will only continue.

"I believe we will see more businesses connecting their machines with back office functions, reducing the lag between field operation and administration, such as record keeping.

"Already we have businesses installing connectivity through in-cab modems and wi-fi networks on yards," he said.

"More customers are improving older systems and machines to connect up the farm, often through ISOBUS ECUs, telemetry, and more."

Many clients pay £199/year for a software package called Farmer Core that delivers features including mapping, record keeping, and profitability analysis.

However, Mark said many businesses invest a little extra for a program called autosync that automates information transfer between the machines and the software.

"It allows business owners to remotely issue work to a machine and set parameters, this helps remove elements of risk related to human error, and also allows for the automation of record keeping.

"As legislation becomes more stringent, those ultimately responsible can ensure that criteria have been met, particularly if future subsidies were to be based on accurately planting or leaving certain areas."

Beyond software

It would appear that software interpreting data and connecting up farms is already in place on some farms and is expanding, but what about the technology that allows farmers to make the most of this?

"We are already able to create variable rate maps from software and issue them to machines, for example drills, and vary the application rate of seed," Mark explained.

"We have one customer that is varying the application rate of three products through the Horsch drill, all being done on a single pass."

This is also the case for spraying, he said: "We can spray based on different zones of a field that have been added to the map by the farmer.

"As the machine passes over the field it makes decisions as to which nozzles should be turned on or off.

"This can lead to great savings on materials, or reduction given the changes we are seeing in chemical availability."

A lot of this is being driven by vegetable growers: "This is coming from a desire to create and manage a field in zones, based on wanting to grow different varieties in the same area but manage them separately.

"On a lower scale this could also be used to turn a whole section off as it gets near a watercourse."

Is this an option for everyone?

It is easy to see how this technology is well suited to large arable farms, but is this really a viable option for small to medium sized farms in this country?

Mark certainly thinks so, and suggests that there are many different factors to consider.

"A lot of smaller businesses will struggle to justify the expense, but their need for efficiency could arguably be more important as they do not have the luxury of economies of scale.

"We supply a very diverse range of customers, somewhere in that portfolio of products there is something for everyone."

"I think it is viable for smaller farms and the benefits are not always financial. An example is health and safety, being able to monitor the location of a lone worker is extremely valuable", Mark explained.

"We offer telemetry products that can monitor machines remotely, which whilst useful for monitoring lone workers is also useful in a time where we are seeing an increase in the theft of vehicles and equipment.

"It is harder for some smaller businesses to justify the replacement of equipment and stomach increasing premiums, we see this technology as offering some sort of alternative."

On farm

Harry Heath runs a 200 hectare family farm in Shropshire where he grows wheat, barley and oilseed rape.

In June they invested in the Farmer Core software, and also opted for the autosync program. Harry said so far, it has proved a beneficial investment.

"The main reason for using the software was to get synchronicity across the tractors, in terms of guidance lines and maps, they all stay the same across the different vehicles.

"Even in the one season we have had since we started using Farmer Core it has already proven very useful for saving time, particularly as we are doing some contracting work.

"We also use the variable rate maps and are hoping to see them coming into their own following the drilling we have done this year."

It is in terms of time saving that Harry believes software is going to prove most useful in the future, for farms of all sizes.

"We are not a massive farm", he said, "But the primary benefit we have seen is in the saving of time.

"That is the most important thing, it makes the most of time in the period when you have not got much."