Seeing The Digital Wood For The Trees In Bedfordshire - Agrii - Connecting Agri-science with farming

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April 18, 2020

Seeing The Digital Wood For The Trees In Bedfordshire

Employing autosteer for the past 18 years, yield mapping since 2004, starting on variable rate seeding 12 years ago and being one of the first in the country to use the most advanced satelllite imagery, Bedfordia Farms have more experience of precision farming than most.

This leaves Ian Rudge, Jonathan (JJ) Ibbett and their team in no doubt that digital technologies will be central to the future of their 2450 ha North Bedfordshire arable business. At the same time, however, in most cases they continue to be hard-pushed to quantify the value of ‘going digital’ in immediate return-on-investment terms.

As a founder member of the country’s first Digital Technology Farm network, they are working to address this, putting much-needed science into precision and digital farming though a series of well-replicated field trials and advance technology testing with research-led agronomy business, Agrii and leading digital farm services provider, Rhiza.

“We have always prided ourselves in being custodians of the environment as well as quality food producers,” says Arable and Operations Manager, Ian. “We share the Bedfordia Group’s passion for ‘Striving for Excellence’; doing things as well as we can and championing modern farming.

“Being as efficient as possible is also essential with a large and relatively complex business like ours. Equally, we want to do everything we can to enable all our people to work to the best of their abilities; and, importantly, appreciate their contribution to our success.

“We see precision and digital technologies having huge potential in all these areas,” Ian stresses. “More accurate information employed in the most effective way will undoubtedly help us farm even better and more sustainably.

“Autosteer is a case in point. It reduces fatigue, allows our staff to concentrate on the task in hand and has really speeded-up operations. What’s more, by ensuring the boundaries of our operations are exactly where they’re meant to be, it’s invaluable in ensuring we are spot-on in our environmental scheme compliance – especially margins and buffer strips.

“With our soils and reliance on organic fertilisation, on the other hand, variable rate P&K is a something we’ve haven’t found worthwhile. After a lot of trial and not a small amount of error in practical implementation, we are just getting to feel confident about variable rate drilling. And we remain unsure about how to make the most of other technologies, including variable rate N.

“It’s vital we see the wood for the trees with the vast range of capabilities our equipment offers these days,” he insists. “We have come to appreciate we can only do this by focusing on the areas that best seem to meet our needs and testing the extent to which they actually deliver in our own field-scale trials. Whether involving seed, nutrition, or other inputs, these trials need to be statistically valid and take into account weather variability.

Good black-grass control enables Bedfordia Farms to maintain a wheat/wheat/rape rotation as the basis of their 2150 ha of combinable cropping. Five-year average yields across the Group 1 wheats that have long been their mainstay average a very acceptable 9.5t/ha. But, with OSR yields declining from their historic 3.9t/ha average to nearer 3.4t/ha, they are looking to winter beans – not grown for the past 15 years – as an additional break to reduce the frequency of rape-growing.

“Bringing in an average of 6.3t/ha from the 70 ha of beans we grew last year was very encouraging,” comments Ian. “So, this season we’ve upped the area to 275ha. As the weather meant we’ve only been able to drill 65% of our planned winter cropping, we are also introducing a fair amount of spring barley into the rotation.

“This should be positive for our weed control efforts. But we try to avoid spring crops wherever possible as we’re flat out at this time of the year fulfilling our commitment to utilise digestate from AD plants on the farm. What’s more, the new diffuse water pollution regulations mean we can no longer apply it to anything other than OSR in the autumn. This puts more pressure on our spring workloads and makes it even more important we have a decent area of rape in the rotation.”

While imposing clear constraints on the arable business, the AD plants – together with Bedfordia Farms’ two straw-bedded sow herds and large pig finishing unit – maintain a ready supply of organic matter. Up to half of annual fertilisation as manures has been very valuable in both soil health and margin terms.

This level of digestate use, however, means potash indices are never lacking. Add-in mainly Hanslope Clay soils which naturally lock-up phosphate and it’s no wonder the team have found little value in variable rate P&K. Instead, they rely on flat rates of fresh available phosphate from P-Grow, pig muck and biosolids.

Until very recently they had also been in two minds about variable rate seeding. Their original soil-mapping system gave them little, if any, opportunity to take into account their considerable local knowledge in zoning fields.

“It’s only in the past two years that we’ve really been getting all our ducks in a row here,” explains assistant manager, JJ. “As well as the most accurate RTK guidance, we have centralised our whole data management on the John Deere system.

“Working with Rhiza specialist, Sarah Hookway, Ian sets up our drilling plans in Gatekeeper using the Contour platform, basing this on past experience, NDVI images and yield maps as much as soil variations. The plans are then automatically transmitted via the cloud to identical screens in our tractor cabs, all the hardware and software working seamlessly with our four variable rate drills. All the field data is then automatically transmitted back via the JD Operations Centre.

“Importantly, everyone involved knows the system, understands how it works, has confidence in it and finds it easy to operate,” he points out. “So much so that, even though we were up against it last autumn, with no more than three consecutive days of field working at any time and no possibility of doing anything after the end of October, we got 820 ha of our wheat reliably variable-rate drilled alongside 775 ha of rape and beans.”

Rather than simply evening-up field performance, the drive behind precision at Bedfordia Farms is to give every area of every field the ability to produce to as much of its potential as possible. Variable rate drilling is seen as crucial in establishing optimum 260 plants/m2 wheat populations for the 600- 800 ears/m2 they want at harvest. After which, individual areas of the crop can be managed to their own particular seasonal constraints.

Headlands now receive 20% more seed as standard and sowing rates are doubled in some parts of some fields known to suffer especially badly from slugs. While it’s early days yet, this led to a visibly better foundation for last season’s milling wheat crop, which went on to average 10.7t/ha.

Working the middles of each field and turning-on uncultivated headlands before coming back to cultivate the headlands in a block as a separate operation has clearly helped here too, as well as speeding-up overall operations. This is clearly shown in the cultivation speed maps generated by the system.

“We have a lot of work to do to make the most of the more precise nutrition we believe will be another important step forward in securing robust yields from the most effective use of resources,” observes Ian. “With higher levels of nitrogen associated with greater disease and lodging risk – and cost – our aim is to achieve the lowest levels of fertilisation necessary to deliver the yields we want.

“Our contractors already have the facility to automatically analyse the organic manures applied as they go on, giving us accurate maps of our core fertilisation. Coupling this with detailed soil maps, regular N-Min sampling and NDVI satellite images through the season from Contour should allow us to tailor our top-up liquid nitrogen applications very much more precisely to crop condition and need; especially if we use our N-Sensor to tweak things on the day. Then, mapping wheat protein levels as well as yields at harvest will provide us with evidence of what we’ve done right – or not, as the case may be – to inform our future management.”

“More reliably frequent NDVI imagery will be essential here, whether by satellite or drone,” he says. “And the real prize will be when Rhiza is able to integrate these data with accurate growth models based on local weather data so we can use the imagery to continuously fine-tune our applications.

“Rather like Agrii’s growth stage-based tissue analysis reporting, monitoring where our crops are sitting on their own performance curve as each season progresses would be an immense advantage in helping us manage them as cost-effectively as we can in an increasingly uncertain climate. This is a hugely exciting prospect.”

Along with data that are more reliable, transferrable between platforms and easier to use, Bedfordia Farms’ most pressing digital need is simple – well-replicated field-scale trials providing the good guidance on where they are likely to get the best value-for-money in applying the technologies available.

“There are so many things we can do with digital technologies,” concludes JJ. “What we need, more than anything else, is to know which of these will most repay our efforts – both immediately and in the longer-term – and how to apply them to make sure they do. These are the most important things we are looking to the Digital Technology Farm network to provide.”