How precision data is mapping out an efficient future for farm near Bungay
Maps have been used for centuries to keep track of farming decisions - but now in a modern world of digital data and technology, they have become a key tool in making, monitoring and maximising those decisions. CHRIS HILL reports.
On the wall above his fireplace, Simon Watchorn has a 400-year-old map of his farm at Earsham, near Bungay.
And while many of the field boundaries and features still look familiar, the ancient image is a world away from the ultra-modern, multi-layered digital maps being developed on the farm today.
Using a combination of hi-tech scans, field sampling and satellite imagery, every inch of ground is surveyed for soil type, nutrient levels, and optimum seed rates.
And this is all part of Mr Watchorn’s drive to bring the benefits of data-driven decision-making from his award-winning pig business into the arable side of his business.
Alongside a 600-sow herd of outdoor-reared pigs, he also has a 480ha arable operation, growing feed wheat and barley, oilseed rape, beans, sugar beet and maize for biogas.
He has been working with precision farming firm SOYL for four years to generate detailed information which can be synchronised with seed drills and sprayers to ensure a consistent crop and optimum use of chemicals.
“I don’t take a decision on my pigs unless the numbers show me it is correct,” said Mr Watchorn “We measure, we record, we analyse, we act, we monitor. That has allowed me to drive my pig unit fairly hard, so I wanted to take that process and bring it into the arable side of the business.
“Before, we were doing minimal soil analysis, and we would be applying everything at a flat rate, with no variability for seed rates, nitrogen, potash or magnesium.
“A yield map can show me there is variability in yield, but it does not say what is causing it. So the first thing we did was we soil-mapped the farm.”
The process starts with an electro-conductivity scan to determine the size of soil particles, and that data is “ground-truthed” to determine soil type, which is allied to information on plant establishment to determine how the seed rate needs to change across the farm to get a consistent number of plants per hectare.
Meanwhile, soil samples are taken every 2ha to measure potash, phosphates and magnesium, while near-infrared satellite pictures can detect chlorophyll levels in growing plants, highlighting areas of nitrogen deficiency. All this data is synchronised with the on-board computers on seed drills and sprayers to ensure nutrients and seeds are distributed only where they are needed.
Mr Watchorn said, regardless of future changes in farm policies and support payments, the “fundamental business driver should be to produce the crop as efficiently as possible”.
But the focus on data is not just about optimum applications – it can also help decide where compromises can be made when resources are tight.
“When the pig prices were bad I had to take a holiday on some of my nutrient applications,” he said. “I knew taking a holiday on P and K (phosphorous and potassium) wouldn’t be a disaster, but taking a holiday on nitrogen would be. And not buying seed will mean I have no crop at all. So I can take this decision from a position of knowledge.
“From these maps, we knew that the fields were robust enough that yield would not be affected. But there was an area where I needed to apply a small amount, and we were able to do that. It was not an ideal situation, but we could make that decision with knowledge. If resources are limited you can point them right where they need to be pointed.”
Peter Croot, regional manager for SOYL, said there were many factors which could prompt a farm to start exploring precision farming.
“A change will happen – it could be a change of machinery, of policy, of farm ownership, or a son coming back to the farm,” he said. “That is where it tends to start.
“We have a massive change in agricultural policy on the way and it has opened up people’s eyes to make every hectare count and to make sure it is making a profit.”
Tom Parker, the firm’s head of products and technology, added: “I would guess three fifths of farms are not employing these techniques yet. But there is not a farm on the planet that could not improve their production through better use of data.”
Mr Watchorn says his ancient farm map proves that Norfolk’s famous four-course rotation was in use many years before it was popularised by agricultural innovator “Turnip Townshend”.
The map shows some of the same field boundaries and names used today, and in the bottom corner, there are a series of four hand-drawn images which appear to illustrate the rotation of wheat, turnips, barley, and clover promoted in the 17th century by the 2nd Viscount Townshend, of Raynham Hall near Fakenham.
“The map is getting on for 400 years old,” said Mr Watchorn. “It is certainly earlier than 1640. The age of the map pre-dates Turnip Townshend, and it describes the Norfolk four-course rotation. So the conclusion to that is that Turnip Townshend described the Norfolk four-course rotation, he did not discover it, he publicised it.
“He took a lump of knowledge and made it accessible, hopefully for other farmers to improve. And that is what we are talking about today. It is not new knowledge. It is taking existing technology and making it accessible to the farmers who are not doing it.”