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June 1, 2020

Nailing the Digital Benefits in Essex

Just because you have the ability to vary inputs doesn’t mean you should. A.S. Clark and Son, based at Langley Lawn Farm near Saffron Walden in Essex, has used precision farming technology since 2010. But Sam Fordham, responsible for precision across the arable business, is keen to establish exactly what benefits this brings.

“We’ve been variably applying seed and fertiliser and recently purchased a SAM Vision sprayer with variable-rate capability, so we can now target PGR and fungicide where it’s needed, too,” he says. “But I feel we haven’t truly nailed down how to get the best from the technology. We should ensure we’re clear on that before we start varying everything we apply just because we can.”

Sam is the third generation involved with the family business, run by his uncle Andy Clark and cousin Matt Clark across 1331ha of mainly chalky boulder clay on the Essex/Cambs/Herts border. Matt provides the agronomy as part of his role as an Agrii agronomist while Sam is also technical manager with Rhiza, so it’s hardly surprising he has a vested interest in how precision farming technology is adopted.

“As we’ve upgraded kiSam Fordhamt over the years, we’ve always looked to have variable-rate capability – that’s not the limiting factor for us; and there are plenty of businesses that have done the same. But what I find with Rhiza customers is that 90% of any problems they have with the technology comes down to having the time or the right people to get the best out of it,” he notes.

That’s where A.S Clark has an advantage, Sam Fordham feels. Along with Matt, who’s an equally keen advocate of precision farming, BASIS-qualified sprayer and drill operator Lewis Stalley is a ‘real asset’ for the business. Equally at home with an iPad, he uses Rhiza to scout areas of concern for Matt to investigate, as he is setting up the sprayer for optimum application.

“Having your agronomist working closely with the digital technology adds huge scope to getting more from your precision investment,” he stresses.

It also puts the team in a good position to carry out trials as part of the Digital Technology Farm network. There are two variable-rate seed trials underway – one on winter wheat, drilled in November, while the spring barley trial was established in March. In a parallel trial in three areas of wheat, variable-rate N is being compared with flat-rate application.

“I reckon we’ve nailed variable-rate seed,” says Sam Fordham. “Our soil type varies from chalky to heavy clay with some lighter land in Herts, and we’ve seen how varying seed improves establishment.

“Introducing Matt’s agronomic advice into our plans to account for blackgrass and slug pressure, for instance, along with Andy’s experience of the farm has allowed us to really fine tune the seed rates. I hope the DTF trials here will quantify the benefits. It’s on variable-rate N where I have more questions.”

Sam reveals that his ‘pet hate’ is varying N to achieve an even yield. “If you have parts of the field that perform better than others, that’s where you should focus your input spend. I don’t think we know enough yet about how to get this right, however.”

The analysis provided through the trials, along with tools available through Rhiza should help bring the answers the Langley Lawn Farm team is looking for.

“You can already see a correlation when comparing NDVI maps with gross margin maps,” observes Sam Fordham.  “The ADAS Agronomics approach here should deliver robust data with statistical confidence. On-farm trials of precision farming haven’t come under that level of scrutiny before.”

In this first year of DTF trialling it’s just the nitrogen and seeding aspects they’ll be investigating, but he hopes this will point the way on other inputs. “It does make theoretical sense to vary PGR. Clearly if you’re pushing areas of a crop for yield, this could all go to waste if it falls flat, so you’d want to give those areas a robust PGR programme. And where you’re holding back on N, if the crop receives too much PGR that will cap its potential.

“Matt and I are less convinced about varying fungicides, though. If you have more biomass the crop may be more prone to disease and you have a larger surface area to cover. But there are other considerations to do with resistance and population dynamics involved, so we need more information before we can confidently tailor inputs.”

Aside from the trials, being part of the DTF network will bring benefits in itself, Sam Fordham adds. “Having trials data from your own back garden is always valuable. The difference with the DTF trials is that on every farm we’re adding in the agronomy input from the Agrii adviser to interpret the data. Sharing this information around the network should us bring us some really valuable insights into how all farmers can use the technology to improve on-farm productivity.

“I’m also keen we explore data transfer and inter-operability. These are a real bugbear for growers. We have some potential solutions we’re going to be looking at, and there’s real value in having a network of open-minded farmers who’ll be sharing experiences.”

Sam is looking forward to understanding more about the benefits the family farm can get out of the technology it already has too. “Auto-guidance is a no-brainer quick fix – you can see very clearly the value you get,” he says. “Other aspects of precision farming may be precise, but they’re currently far from an exact science and you don’t always get it right the first time you use it. It won’t be a quick fix, but I do think the DTF trials will bring us confidence and clarity.”

A.S. Clark and Son, Saffron Walden, Essex

  • Soil Type: Chalky boulder clay, heavy Essex clay, sandy loams with gravel
  • Cropped Area: 1331ha
  • Enterprise Mix: Wheat, winter and spring barley, OSR, spring and winter beans, plus spring wheat and spring oats this year
  • DTF Trials: Variable nitrogen in winter wheat, variable seeding in winter wheat and spring barley
  • Key trial hopes: “We want to nail down the true benefits that variable rate applications offer so we can use the technology to its full potential.”

Reprinted with kind permission from CPM magazine.