A new large-scale trial to investigate the physical and financial benefits of an integrated precision-farming approach is being undertaken by Agrovista in Cambridgeshire.
The split-fields trial, which will take place over several years at David Wakefield’s Manor Farm, near Ramsey, is comparing current farm practice with new techniques that employ a range of precision farming technologies.
It will investigate how these developments can be used to influence agronomy and associated farm management.
The trial is also evaluating costs and likely financial benefits that precision farming tools can deliver in practice.
“The aim is to bring together the various elements that are associated with precision farming and see how they work on a commercial farm, to provide clear decision-making evidence,” says Agrovista’s head of precision technology Lewis McKerrow.
The PTRx (Plantsystems Technology prescription) trials are taking place across four fields totalling 107ha, each of which contain significant variations in soil type, aspect and water retention.
Concepts currently under test include soil zoning, variable rate seed, soil moisture measurements, weather information and crop sensing using drones and a tractor-mounted Isaria.
Soil zoning was carried out last summer using a Veris MSP3 sensor, which measures electro-conductivity (which indicates soil type), pH, and organic matter, as well as topographical information such as elevation, slope and curve.
The MSP3 maps and previous yield maps indicate that curve – which indicates the lowest and highest parts of the field – has the biggest effect on yield, due to a combination of soil type and soil nutrient and water availability. “It’s been quite an eye opener how this affects field performance, says Mr McKerrow.
The soil information has been collated to produce environmental information maps, including risk of N and nutrient loss and a water retention map.
“The map shows how variable these fields really are,” says Mr McKerrow. “Given this variation, crops are clearly going to perform differently, so we need to interpret this data to drive decisions to get the best out of these soils.”
The fields were direct drilled with winter wheat at the end of October. One 32ha field was typical of all, half receiving 130kg/ha (250 seeds/sq m) in line with farm practice, the other half received variable rates based on the soil zone information and the farm’s yield maps. Seed rate varied from 100-165kg/ha (192-317 seeds/sq m) according to expected plant establishment.
Establishment ranged from 80% down to 47%, producing plant counts of 148-184/sq m. All the plant counts were higher than expected and above the usual farm target.
“Although the general principle worked, by no means did we get absolute numbers right,” says Mr McKerrow. “However, seasons vary, so we will judge these numbers by the results and adjust accordingly next season.”
Variable rate N was applied according to the field curve map, yield maps and a crop biomass/N uptake scan taken by a drone fitted with a near infra-red camera.
Although too early to draw any conclusions, drone scans confirm that field variability has been smoothed to some extent already in year one.
Agrovista will report in more detail on how successful the correlation has been between mapping, decision making and resulting margins after harvest, and how the programme will be adapted in year two based on those results.
Aims of PTRx trials
Examine standard farm practice next to latest technologies
Apply real world figures to prove the benefits
Examine data collected and decide best course of action