How hi-tech farms are harnessing the power of data
- Credit: Danielle Booden
Tech-savvy East Anglian farms have shown how data can be harnessed to optimise crop decisions, improve the environment - and potentially save thousands of pounds from their bottom line.
The Sentry farming group has employed an analytics system developed by technology firm Yagro, which collates up to five years of data on seeds, fertilisers and sprays.
This data is then aligned into a uniform structure so it can be easily shared, analysed and compared with past performance, or benchmarked against other neighbouring farms or the national database.
This collaborative information can be used to optimise seed-drilling rates, or avoid the over-use of fertiliser and chemical sprays.
And this can add up to major environmental gains and cost savings - which could be increasingly important as the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) subsidy safety net is gradually phased out after Brexit, to be replaced by green incentive schemes.
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Sentry director John Barrett, who farms at Hill House Farm in Hedenham, near Bungay, said the system can also identify his most efficient fields for growing particular crops, not just by looking for the highest yields, but also for the lowest cost of production.
"To me it is about optimising rather than maximising," he said. "It is looking for the cost benefit in different circumstances, not necessarily just about reducing cost. We don't want to waste our chemicals or fertilisers. We want to make the best use of what we put on.
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"One of the things this has done for us to identify our top-performing field and our bottom-performing fields. In my mind, I had a preconceived idea of what those fields would be, and actually that didn't happen. The data doesn't lie.
"Another key learning was that on the poorer yielding soils I shouldn't be growing sugar beet, because I have got no way of controlling my costs. The seed is a set cost, I cannot reduce the sprays because it is mainly herbicides and I have to control the weeds, and fertiliser is all applied fairly early and it is not huge amounts so it is is pretty limited in what you can do to reduce costs.
"So it identified to me that if I have got a lower-yielding potential field I should not be growing sugar beet on it, but I can grow other crops such as rye, which works well on the light land because it is good at getting nutrients out of the soil and it is drought tolerant.
"So this is also identifying what sort of crops I should grow and where - all from analytics."
Mr Barrett, who is also a chairman of the stakeholder group for Agri-TechE (formerly Agri-Tech East), said the need for data-sharing and collaboration was greater than ever.
"There is definitely a real need for it, for everyone's benefit, because we all have different skills," he said. "Our challenge is that BPS is going and therefore we have not got that support behind us if we get it wrong. So we've got no choice but to make sure what we do is right. That is the incentive."
Alec Smith, senior business adviser for Sentry, said almost 20 farms in the group are already using the system since it was introduced earlier this year.
"The key thing is that all the data which has gone through the system is comparable, so you are comparing apples with apples," he said.
"You can put a high wheat yield group together and they can learn how and one farm might have performed better.
"With some farms, we found fertiliser use is quite high where it doesn't need to be, so there are ways we can then improve it. Especially with where we are going with new markets using less carbon, that is going to be key."
Rupert Harlow, relationship manager at Yagro, said the system made use of readily-available data.
"Farms have got a huge amount of data that they have to record for compliance reasons but that data doesn't necessarily give them any answers, and it is not structured in a way that is easy to understand.
"So we pull data in from different sources, put it all together into one place so you can easily compare yourself with others, as well as looking internally.
"The idea being that you can collaborate and share your information with other farms. Each farm manager is the expert on their farm, so if all those experts get together and sit down around a virtual table, they can start to share their own learnings."