How public-funded new sensor network is helping farmers reduce chemical sprays

Carl Pitelen, precision agriculture manager at Ben Burgess, with a weather station connected to Norf

Carl Pitelen, precision agriculture manager at Ben Burgess, with a weather station connected to Norfolk County Council's new long range wide-area network (LoRaWAN). Picture: Chris Hill - Credit: Chris Hill

Data-driven decisions based on weather information are helping East Anglian farms cut the cost and environmental impact of crop spraying – with the help of a new free-to-use sensor network.

Carl Pitelen, precision agriculture manager at Ben Burgess, with a weather station connected to Norf

Carl Pitelen, precision agriculture manager at Ben Burgess, with a weather station connected to Norfolk County Council's new long range wide-area network (LoRaWAN). Picture: Chris Hill - Credit: Chris Hill

Norwich-based machinery dealer Ben Burgess is one of the first companies to take advantage of the long-range wide-area network (LoRaWAN) launched across Norfolk and Suffolk in September by the county councils – the largest deployment of its kind in the UK.

Businesses can connect their own sensors to the network for free, allowing them to measure anything from weather and rainfall to sound, temperature or visitor numbers.

Previously, sensors needed to be more complex and store data themselves, making them expensive to buy and operate. But with the Innovation Network, cheaper, low-power sensors can be used to transmit data over a long distance – making the technology much more accessible.

One valuable application in the agricultural industry is being trialled by Ben Burgess, which is using the network to link up weather stations transmitting rain, temperature, humidity, and calculated leaf wetness information which can be used to create risk models for crop diseases like septoria – allowing farmers to target their spray operations only when they are needed, reducing chemical applications by as much as two-thirds.

Norfolk farm machine firm Ben Burgess says data collected by weather stations can be used to predict

Norfolk farm machine firm Ben Burgess says data collected by weather stations can be used to predict the risk of crop disease, reducing the need for crop sprays by as much as two thirds. Pictured: A crop sprayer in action. Picture: John Deere - Credit: John Deere


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Carl Pitelen, group precision agriculture manager at Ben Burgess said: “More and more people now want this data.

“I personally think pressures are becoming harder on costs and margins, and there are environmental pressures as well. Where we are monitoring more we can do things to reduce chemical usage, and use that data and technology to increase the gross margin on the crop. Farmers are using data to make better decisions.

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“This is a cost effective solution with no sim card or cellular data charges, because we are tapping directly into the county council network. You just put it out in the field and it starts sending data straight away. That is the beauty of it.

“If you put them in field-specific settings you can start to use the weather data to get more agronomic data for disease risk, so then we can save on fungicides for the crops.

Carl Pitelen, precision agriculture manager at Ben Burgess, with a weather station connected to Norf

Carl Pitelen, precision agriculture manager at Ben Burgess, with a weather station connected to Norfolk County Council's new long range wide-area network (LoRaWAN). Picture: Chris Hill - Credit: Chris Hill

READ MORE: Aromatic herb farm invests £250,000 to expand essential oils distillery“The limitation is the amount of data you can send. The larger stations might have 10 or 15 sensors wrapped around them, but because the LoRa ones are low frequency and low-band they have only got basic data on them. But it is ideal if you are a potato grower and you just want to know the rainfall, temperature and humidity, you can work out the moisture deficit in the soil to plan irrigation, then use leaf wetness for disease risk monitoring. Some people just blanket spray, but what is the point if you don’t need to?”

Charles Saffell, managing partner at farming and contracting firm HC Beales in Great Ellingham, near Attleborough, trialled one of the weather stations on a 7ha field of winter wheat this year. He said the disease forecast data helped him reduce chemical sprays by two-thirds, with a negligible impact on yields.

“We monitored the need for fungicides, and it only peaked once so we put one very good fungicide on,” he said. “If not for that, I would have sprayed a four-stage fungicide as the agronomist recommended. I reckon we have saved around £80 per hectare. That field yielded just 0.05t/ha less than the best field on the farm, which was 11.55t/ha.

“I think the cost-saving and environmental gains are equally important. We have got to embrace farming into a new era and be as environmentally friendly as we can, because we are going to be scrutinised on this for ever more. We don’t want to be splashing chemicals about just because that is what the advice is.”

Once finished, the LoRaWAN network, which is funded by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, will be made up of 270 “gateways” across Norfolk and Suffolk.

Tom FitzPatrick, Norfolk’s cabinet member for innovation, transformation and performance, said: “Our network is already helping kickstart innovation here in Norfolk, with businesses including Ben Burgess using it to help them and their clients save time and money.”

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