Automatic guidance and precision technology are finding their way onto many farms as the range of products and services on offer becomes wider and more diverse. But how to get started? Three farmers tell us how they began, the obstacles they had to overcome, and what encouraged them to stay engaged and carry on.
Close to the Teutoburger Wald in northern Germany, the Vogelsang Farm fits harmoniously into the landscape. Traditional brick buildings, in some places, clearly bear the weight of their years. Behind this humble exterior, however, lies a highly advanced farm with regards to using precision technology. “It all started in 2010 with a StarFire receiver,” recalls Stefan Vogelsang, 33, who runs the 160ha farm with its 1,000 pigs and 180 dairy cows. “My dealer gave it to me on a trial basis for a year. I was completely won over by the accuracy of the guidance and immersed myself in its technology and application. This then led me to get an ISOBUS interface for the sprayer.”
Some 10 years later, precision farming practices have been extended to most of the field work on the farm. From variable rate drilling and crop protection products to site-specific fertiliser and precise harvesting, all tasks are directly documented via JDLink and with the help of yield maps the results are analysed.
When applying nitrogen fertiliser, Mr Vogelsang uses real-time biomass measurement: A Nextfarming GreenSeeker mounted on the front of the tractor measures the chlorophyll level, and from there, the nitrogen requirements of the plant are estimated. First, he defines the minimum and maximum doses alongside his fertiliser strategy. Then the centrifugal spreader adapts the dosage by adjusting the position and speed of the discs. “During the first pass across the field, the plants that are less green receive the most nitrogen, while during the final application, nothing is spread on plants that are starting to ripen,” explains Mr Vogelsang. Over the past three years he has also applied manure – which, due to the different types of animals kept on the farm, has widely ranging nutrient content – at variable rates with the help of an NIR sensor.
Precision farming brings seed savings
Since 2019, Mr Vogelsang has adjusted the amount of lime spread according to the specific requirements of the soil. Growth regulators are also applied at reduced rates where cereals show signs of stress, so as not to further impede their development. It remains to be seen what the impact on yield will be, but the benefit of precision techniques is particularly clear when it comes to drilling. “We use biomass maps from the previous crop and vary seed rates accordingly. As a result, we are using 10% less seed.” Logically, precision drilling also influences the productivity of the plots, since the plants share the soil resources better, says Mr Vogelsang. “This means more energy in the plant.”
Everything started with the StarFire receiver.
When getting started, it is important not to underestimate the time required to fully understand and get the digital part of the equipment up and running, he advises. “Practice makes perfect. Don’t be afraid to read the instructions right through to the last page. I spent so many hours configuring the guidance of my old John Deere 6910 to make sure drilling worked perfectly… Then, three days later, when the manure had to be incorporated into the soil with a disc harrow, everything had to be reprogrammed. Now all I have to do is press a few buttons and I get the results I want.”
On the other side of the Channel, Bedfordia Farms, with 2,100ha of crops and 33,000 finishing pigs, is one of the pioneers in precision farming in the region. All machines are equipped with AutoTrac RTK, and the farm is in the process of introducing controlled traffic farming (machine guidance on predefined reoccurring tramlines) for all its work. Manure is applied at variable rates according to in-field soil variability, based on different sources including soil samples, electromagnetic conductivity measurement, and yield maps.
The farm produces high-protein milling wheat, so precise nitrogen supply is key; it is measured and adjusted directly via an on-board sensor (Yara N Sensor). Wheat features heavily in a six-year rotation (wheat, wheat, rapeseed, wheat, wheat, beans). Jonathan Ibbett, the assistant arable mananger, studied at the prestigious Harper Adams University. Precision farming was part of the course, but as he explains, it is primarily learned “on the job”. The only condition: “An interest in technology. And you must also have an interest in making marginal improvements – analysing data and understanding where you went wrong.”
A solid plan
Mr Ibbett started variable rate seeding in 2014. “But we didn’t have a clear plan. We stopped after two years and went back to flat rate as it was easier.” In 2018 he moved back into variable rate seeding with support from Agrii. They decided to base the sowing on NDVI vegetation index maps, yields and historic field knowledge, and since then crops have started to become more even. “You’ve got to be open and accept your limitations,” he says. “There are better people to point you in the right direction if you know the right questions to ask.” And here’s another important point to remember: “There is a lot of technology out there which won’t give an evident return. If you’re trialling that technology, you need to have a good plan for it. And once you’ve adopted something get as much out of it as you can.”
We tried precision seeding.
One of the next steps will be through compiling all the available data. “We want to find the most profitable areas of the farm and farm them well, and use the less profitable areas for extensive management or environmental management schemes.” In the more distant future, the Bedfordia team would like to use the wealth of information to “bring yields closer to the genetic potential of plants”.
By recording every input, along with soil temperature and moisture, it is possible to see where potential is dropping off, says Mr Ibbett. “You should be able to track the health of your plant and get ahead of the game – predicting and treating diseases before they become an issue.”
[ 03, France, 48°23’30.0″n 4°15’56.8″w ]
France: Digitalisation brings added value for the contractor
In Brittany, the agricultural contracting company (ETA) Elorn has recently embarked on precision farming. In this case, the impulse came from the firm’s customers. “With seven employees, we carry out all services from sowing to harvesting within a radius of 20km,” says Kevin Quivouron, who took over the company in 2013.
“I started in a rather atypical way,” he says. When buying his fifth combine in 2017, Mr Quivouron went for the option of yield and moisture measuring to offer added value to his customers. The feedback was positive: “Many customers told me this helped them to better know and understand their fields.” Elorn has therefore opened partner accounts for its customers on MyJohnDeere. “They quickly pointed out to me: You have the tools to check yields, you should think about precision farming.”
My customers asked me to try variable rate application.
In 2019, the company therefore acquired a new fertiliser spreader and customers now provide satellite biomass maps via their co-operative. “On 20% of our harvested acreage nitrogen fertiliser is spread at variable rates, and that percentage will increase next season.” After a year, the result is clear. “In some areas, we got up to 1t/ha more yield in rapeseed and 2t/ha in wheat. Even if this gain is also linked to soil quality, yield maps show that the improvement is related to more uniform plant development,” says Mr Quivouron. “This is confirmed by tests we have conducted with and without variable fertiliser rates.”
Variable rate seeding is another part of the project. On the hilly land of Brittany, the soils are very mixed, and this is really felt at harvest time. “We have problems with germination and seedling emergence. Variable seed rates should help to achieve better results.”
A need for continuous training
As employees were experiencing difficulties with the new equipment, the entire team participated in training at the dealership. “There’s so much stuff in consoles today, it’s hard to know how to operate it all,” says Mr Quivouron. “Creating a guidance track is not difficult but defining the perimeter of a plot was a bit more complicated for the employees. Eventually we will have no choice but to organise further regular training within the company because every new machine has a little more technology.”
In France, where there is a shortage of qualified drivers, this development complicates hiring, notes the entrepreneur. “We need to look for employees with a higher level of education and computer literacy.”
Where to start?
So where should farmers new to the technology begin? “Based on my experience: Don’t try to save when buying the steering system, otherwise you’ll get frustrated with the result and stop. I made that mistake at the start. You have to make a reasonable investment; you’ll notice the difference immediately and this is what will create the desire to go further.”
Mr Quivouron also puts the cost of guidance into perspective: “As long as the farm has several tractors, the actual investment per machine is reduced since a system like AutoTrack can be switched from one machine to another.”