Data-driven farmers team up to optimise costly field operations

Catalyst Farming partnership at Holkham Farming Co

Farm managers, agronomists and analysts working with the Catalyst Farming partnership - Credit: Brittany Woodman

A partnership between five major Norfolk farming businesses is analysing a torrent of shared data in a bid to optimise increasingly costly field operations.

Catalyst Farming is a collaboration between the Holkham Farming Company and Holkham Emerald near Wells, NE Salmon at Great Fransham near Dereham, Raynham Farms near Fakenham and Salle Farms near Reepham.

The group is "harnessing the power of data" to inform decision-making across a combined land holding totalling 7,000 hectares.

Data analyst Dominic Swan is crunching numbers from farm machines, eight weather stations, drones and soil mapping to influence variables ranging from sprayer and fertiliser applications to drilling dates and seed rates.

The idea is to share knowledge to make each partners' respective systems more efficient, and therefore more resilient to volatile weather and financial shocks - particularly important at a time of soaring fuel, feed and fertiliser costs.

Mr Swan said: "This is five farming businesses, working together, pooling data and trying to analyse it so we can influence decisions in the future, or measure what impact those decisions have had."

Catalyst Farming data analyst Dominic Swan (left) and chairman Poul Hovesen

Catalyst Farming data analyst Dominic Swan (left) and chairman Poul Hovesen - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Poul Hovesen, chairman of the group, said: "We agreed that if we were going to do this it had to be real data, and everything had to be transparent and available to all of us. That gives confidence in a change of policy.

"We have all got individual strengths, but together we have much more strength.

"Initially it was the influence on the crop managers, and they all mentioned how important it was to have support from colleagues they could have a good open discussion with. When we got over that we realised we could influence our technical operators and they have responded tremendously.

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"Following that, the owners of these businesses suddenly opened their eyes and said this is really interesting. That is probably, fundamentally, where we have had the biggest effect. That has never happened before."

A bespoke app has been developed to gather information on the machine operations, cultivation and drilling. 

James Beamish, farm manager for the Holkham Estate, said: "For the last three seasons every time a machine has gone into the field we have measured things as simple as time in that field, fuel usage, depth of cultivation.

"Across the five businesses we have all different makes of machinery, all different horsepowers, all slightly different systems - but we can still pull out data to get a handle on the energy costs or the operational costs of what we are doing."

Arable operations on the Holkham Estate, part of the Catalyst Farming partnership

Arable operations on the Holkham Estate, part of the Catalyst Farming partnership - Credit: James Beamish

Mr Swan outlined one example of a simple "tramline trial" at Salle to asses the impact of various nitrogen fertiliser rates compared with yields maps from the combine harvester - which concluded that the farm was already applying the optimum rate.

Steve Baldock of Prime Agriculture, who provides agronomy for the group, said: "That is still really valuable knowledge. In an environment where wheat prices have nearly doubled, fertiliser prices have quadrupled, we are then able to plug that information in to work out where the optimum was.

"It is all about optimising, The industry is in a very reductionist phase at the moment, where everything has to be reduced, but actually it is about optimising every decision that you make."

Arable operations on the Holkham Estate, part of the Catalyst Farming partnership

Arable operations on the Holkham Estate, part of the Catalyst Farming partnership - Credit: James Beamish

Ed Salmon of NE Salmon, agreed. "It is about optimising cost, not reducing cost," he said.

"There was never the absolute goal from the start that we must reduce 20pc of our spraying cost, for example. It is about optimising those to produce the optimum yield. Then you are getting the lowest cost per tonne rather than saying we need to shave a certain amount off our inputs."

Tom Pearson of the Raynham Estate said the Catalyst approach had helped him maximise a specific asset.

"A unique trait of Catalyst at Raynham is the AD (anaerobic digestion) energy plant we have on-farm, so we also have access to a lot of organic manures in the form of digestate so we are experimenting on how we optimise that digestate and how much we can save on our artificial fertiliser bill.

"We did some trials last year where we grew a winter wheat field and half of it was using artificial fertiliser and half was organic manures in the form of liquid digestate, and we saw a yield increase of 12pc and a saving of £180 per hectare in fertiliser.

"So again it is about optimisation - learning how we can optimise our use of digestate and apply it in the most accurate and efficient way. That was an exciting trial and it shields us from the increase in variable costs in the form of fertiliser as well, so that is a big benefit for us."

The Catalyst Farming partnership collects data on machinery operations via a bespoke mobile app

The Catalyst Farming partnership collects data on machinery operations via a bespoke mobile app - Credit: Brittany Woodman