Lost profits in the bottom drawer

Jim Wilson (second from right) with farmers at the Temora research update in February this year.

By Alec Nicol

Anyone who does not believe there is money to be made from satellite images, has not seen the latest in car software in the UK, quips Scottish farmer Jim Wilson.

In conjunction with a vehicle’s GPS, it pinpoints the position of every known speed camera in the country.

The Scottish farmer was a keynote speaker at the GRDC’s Grains Research Updates throughout south-eastern Australia and he urged his listeners to take a fresh look at the yield maps collecting in their bottom drawers.

Photo: Advocating precision agriculture: Jim Wilson (second from right) with farmers at the Temora research update in February this year.

By using these precision agriculture aids on his own farm – an area that needs continual liming – he has been able to reduce pH variability from two units to 0.6 units in three years. He has saved $89 a hectare and has “the satisfaction of knowing I’m doing a better job”.

Mr Wilson was an early advocate of precision agriculture, and now advises other farmers throughout the UK and Northern Ireland.

“Showing people how they could save money through more accurate liming was a soft sell in our district,” he says. “There are many reasons for the variability, soil type obviously, but lime spreaders in the past were notoriously inaccurate and lime was wasted on some areas while other areas went without.”

Mr Wilson also says that it is now many years since he applied a uniform rate of phosphorus to his cereal crops. “I test the lowest yielding area in the paddock and the highest yielding area and, if phosphorus isn’t a limiting factor, I simply replace the amount of phosphorus removed by the last crop.”

He says the impetus to embrace precision agriculture was, as is usually the case, the pressure of external change.

“When I was making money there was no pressure to change the way I farmed,” he says. “But now my profits are declining and the mid-term review of the European Union subsidy policy will see support shift away from production, to environmental and social drivers.

“To survive I have to change the way I farm and the new technologies provide the tools to make that change.”

In one recent UK trial, farmers were offered satellite images of their paddocks showing a leaf area index and a nitrogen application map that could be loaded directly into their fertiliser spreader. This is already a commercial service in France. Mr Wilson says the service cost about $15 and provided an estimated additional return of $35/ha.

Some UK farmers are also now using a tractor-mounted sensor that directly controls nitrogen fertiliser applications. Working from ambient light reflected from the crop, it can be calibrated to vary nitrogen application according to crop status – less on green lush patches, more on less vigorous growth.

It can also be used to balance the protein reading across the paddock – more on lush green patches, less on less vigorous growth. The sensor’s manufacturers claim a 3.4 percent yield lift and a 0.5 percent protein increase.

Mr Wilson says the only drawback is that it only works when the sun is out. “This doesn’t happen often in Scotland, and I’m not sure about putting additional nitrogen on without knowing why that particular area of the crop isn’t doing well.”

Nonetheless, he regards precision agriculture and canopy management – varying nitrogen applications throughout the season as crop requirements change – as a marriage made in heaven.

Driven by the need to get protein and yield right without the penalty of high screenings in a poor finish, he feels all growers could do worse than revisit those filed-away yield maps.

For more information:
UK Homegrown Cereals Authority, www.hgca.com