UK: Selling The Benefits

Precision ag, or precision farming as it is more commonly referred to, has seen a sharp increase in interest and uptake in the last few years in the UK. The drivers behind this come from a number of sources, all of which dovetail to make precision farming the obvious way to improve on farm management of inputs in Great Britain. First, and probably principally, is the cost of fertilizer. Phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) cost has increased by 300% over the last 24 months. This has stimulated an increase in interest about nutrient mapping. The costs of nutrient mapping per acre as a proportion of spend on P and K fertilizer is now nominal. Even saving a few percent on a fertilizer bill will comfortably cover the cost of mapping in the first year.

In tandem with this increase in demand, the cost of a GPS kit has declined and compatibility with fertilizer spreaders, so often a stumbling block, is now almost universal. Most farmers in the UK will broadcast fertilizer through a spinning disk spreader on 24-meter (approximately 78-foot) tramlines. The farmer will own his own kit and spread his own fertilizer. This means that he will invest in his own GPS application kit which previously may have been prohibitive. However, all the main spreader manufacturers now have models that are compatible with a GPS-enabled PDA that can be purchased from £1,500 (about $2,600).

So the payback is there and the capital investment is modest. Precision farming is also favored by those who recognize the environmental benefits of only applying inputs in the right amount and in the right place. Therefore, initiatives such as Catchment Sensitive Farming and organizations like FWAG (Farming and Wildlife in Agriculture) actively encourage those to whom they give advice to explore precision farming techniques.

Similar levels of uptake have been seen in the use of guidance and automatic steering systems, and this would be many users’ route into the broader area of Precision Farming.

On the agronomic side, crop sensing for nitrogen has also seen an increase in use. There are commercial services offering tractor-generated as well as satellite imagery to measure crop biomass. These maps are used to assess the nitrogen requirements of winter cereals and oilseed rape (canola). The UK system is high input/high output agriculture, with winter wheat yields of 10 metric tons per hectare (about 150 bushels/acre) common and 200 kilograms per hectare (178 lbs./acre) nitrogen typically applied in three doses over the season. Therefore, there is potential to collect three images and apply nitrogen variably three times over the season. SOYL Ltd. has provided satellite imagery over 50,000 hectares (ha) in 2008 and has seen average benefits of over £30/ha (about $20 per acre) over uniform rates of application.

The newer methods being used mainly by the early adopter farmers include variable-rate seed rates often based on conductivity surveys. These aim to give an even establishment of plant populations which will provide an additive benefit for crop management from fungicide sprays through to harvesting. SOYL has also carried out compaction mapping and produced variable sub-soiling maps. These have seen unnecessary sub-soiling reduced by up to 40% with associated savings on fuel and equipment wear as well as soil structure benefits.

However, although precision farming is on the up slope, most farmers (70% or more) probably will not be actively implementing precision farming techniques. There is a need to reach out to those who currently are not benefiting or who are sceptical about precision technology. The HGCA (Home Grown Cereals Authority), which manages levy money in the UK on behalf of farmers, has set up a precision farming committee to implement a series of nationwide workshops with the aim of drawing in non-users and giving them advice and information. The HGCA also funds research, and precision farming has been earmarked as a priority for future projects.

UK farmers are generally keen to use new technologies and innovations. This has made uptake in the UK the highest in Europe. When this new technology has a tangible payback it should be an “easy sell.” The task of SOYL and others is to find those farmers who have not yet seen the precision farming “light” and help convert them.

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