Demand for precision farming products and services to optimise output and efficiency across the trading area is growing
Long-established Essex and Kent Agco dealer, RW Crawford has its headquarters at South Woodham Ferrers, near Chelmsford, from where it looks after Fendt, Massey Ferguson and Challenger products for Essex, and Fendt and Challenger products for Kent. Demand for precision farming products and services to optimise output and efficiency across the trading area is growing and the dealer has recently joined with service provider LH-Agro, investing in an RTK network to meet the needs of its many clients. David Williams reports.”We have enjoyed significantly increased sales in recent years, our product ranges proving ideal for users within our trading area,” explained sales director Wes Crawford. “Since taking on the Kent area in 2010 we have served our entire trading area from our Essex base, and, while this has been very successful, we aim to provide the best possible service to users, so have invested in a new depot near Ashford, due to open in June.”We have also made significant investment, in partnership with service provider LH-Agro, in an RTK network which now extends across most of our operating area. We know our customers prefer to use one supplier for products and services where possible as this makes life for them a lot easier, and is usually more efficient, so now as well as offering the machinery and the electronics systems, we are also supplying the signal.”Adequate coverage and repeatability is key “We are delighted that our investment in the RTK network has been received so well by our customers,” said Wes. “We are keeping the cost at a competitive 500 per receiver per year and the LH-Agro system is suitable for use with other makes of precision farming products besides Topcon, so it is very versatile. The service is now available over most of Essex and Kent, and while there are a small number of gaps in the signal’s availability, we aim to fill in most of these before harvest this year.” LH-Agro managing director Richard Reed is also pleased with the take-up of the system by users; “We are delighted to be working in partnership with R W Crawford to provide RTK Precision Farming solutions in the Essex and Kent area. The adoption of Topcon RTK has far exceeded our expectations with a number of growers running multiple systems having seen the overall cost benefits from their initial investment. Not just a steering system but an invaluable farm management tool opening up numerous opportunities through highly accurate and repeatable positioning.
Trading as BB Stephens & Son, and based at Hoath, near Canterbury, Chris Stephens grows approximately 500ha of combinable crops in Kent, mainly wheat, beans, oilseed rape and oats, on a mix of owned as well as contract-farmed land. Chris runs a Challenger RoGator RG655 self-propelled sprayer, purchased from RW Crawford in 2012, and a Challenger MT755 rubber-tracked crawler also supplied by the dealer.Kent farmer Chris Stephens is pictured with the farm’s Challenger crawler and RoGator sprayer.”Previously we used another make of sprayer, but were not very satisfied with its performance. A neighbour had a RoGator supplied by Crawfords, and spoke very highly of the machine and the dealer,” said Chris. “We tried the RoGator and were impressed by its stability and comfort. It is well-designed and constructed, and the Chafer boom was capable of spraying at 36 and 24m which made it suitable for our own work as well as for customers.”Feedback from our neighbours regarding the service received from RW Crawford was excellent, despite the dealer having its base in Essex so choosing the RoGator was a relatively easy decision,” he added.GPS-based guidance and control had been in use on the farm for approximately five years and the system used was adequate for tasks such as cultivations but didn’t offer the precision needed for spraying. “It offered significant advantages in terms of reduced operator fatigue and optimised output for cultivations but we needed improved accuracy and repeatability for application tasks, especially as we were providing the contract service to other farmers,” said Chris. “RW Crawford impressed us with its proactive approach to providing its service and was willing to invest in a system which would provide the quality coverage needed. A neighbouring farm which was using a Topcon system hosts one of the Crawford and LH-Agro base stations and while this covers most of our working area, some of the outlying land isn’t sufficiently covered and Crawfords put in a repeater station to provide the signal needed.”We have been very impressed by the dealer’s approach; rather than talking about what they are going to do, they have just worked with LH-Agro, put in the investment and done it. RW Crawford is a good-size business, a very friendly family firm to deal with and the way it looks after its customers, even from over the county border is superb. The new depot opening in Kent will only add to the back-up available.”Chris said the difference between the farm’s previous auto-steer equipment, still used on some of the tractors, and the newer Topcon RTK is significant; “Before we had the Topcon RTK auto-steer system, we had two control boxes which were swapped between tractors, and we found that whenever they were available the drivers liked to use them. The equipment helped them work more accurately, made their job much easier and made the whole operation more productive. As they are already on the farm, these will continue to be used where accuracy isn’t so critical, but for jobs requiring greater accuracy the newer Topcon RTK system is much better. Because of its repeatability year-to-year, we don’t put in any tramlines now, but I am not convinced we will adopt full controlled traffic farming yet. The repeatability year-to-year though means we are saving on subsoiling costs as we know the sprayer wheelings will be in the same places.”We have automatic section control on the sprayer which I feel is essential for a 36m spray width. We also apply liquid fertiliser through the sprayer and might look at variable rate application in the future, but currently we adjust it using our judgement. Our P and K is applied by tractor-mounted spreader and we use GPS-controlled variable rate for that as it isn’t possible to judge the need by eye.”Chris is delighted with the attitude and back-up from RW Crawford and LH-Agro. “The service provided by the two companies working together is excellent. If we have a query it is dealt with immediately and because the LH-Agro area representative, Rob Thurkettle, worked previously selling Challenger products, he has thorough knowledge of the machines and the electronics. It makes it all very straightforward for us.”Fuel savings and reduced operator fatigue
In Essex, Simon Parrish, manager for PHL is equally impressed with the RTK facility provided by the companies. The farm is all arable. Cropping is wheat, oilseed rape and barley but this year there are several fields of spring oats too, the combination of heavy land and the wet autumn meaning cropping plans had to be altered. Cultivations are usually a pass with a Simba Solo behind the combine, then when volunteers and weeds have established and been sprayed off, a Horsch CO8 8m direct-tine drill is used for everything except the OSR, which is planted using a Solo-mounted distributor.Simon Parrish (left) of PHL with Wes Crawford and one of the Topcon-equipped Massey Ferguson tractors.Most of the farm is within a block, split by the M11, and there is some land on farms further from the Epping base too. The farm has used GPS for variable rate fertiliser application for several years, but the RTK system now in use is the first which has been used for automatic steering. Two Massey Ferguson tractors, a 6480 and a 6485 as well as a Challenger 845C rubber-tracked crawler form the main fleet, all provided by RW Crawford, along with the farm’s tractor-mounted Amazone sprayer and fertiliser applicator. A small amount of ploughing is carried out each year with the farm’s 10f Lemken plough.”We have been using variable rate fertiliser application for four or five years,” explained Simon, “but we were keen to extend the use of technology to help us save fuel as the costs have increased. Being able to match passes during cultivations as well as save time by making the most of the possible work rates all helps save money, and during long working days there is much less operator fatigue. Recently, I spent a few hours on the Challenger crawler with our Horsch drill and being able to let the system look after the steering in the knowledge that the full width of the drill was being used made the job very easy. We don’t have to worry now about drill markers being set up incorrectly or being broken as we don’t need them, and for our pre-emergence spraying we don’t have to lose time marking out with inaccurate blob markers.”The Topcon hardware will link in with all the Amazone control systems, and Simon explained that in the future the farm will almost certainly move to full sectional control for spraying and spreading. He said the intention had been to adopt controlled-traffic farming on the fields this year but that the extreme weather had provided significant challenges so this had been postponed. “With the RTK in use though, it made spraying off the stubbles prior to drilling much easier, as we didn’t have to worry about creating ruts as future wheelings will be in the same places due to the accuracy and repeatability provided by the system,” he explained.Researching options
Simon said he had been researching options for guidance systems when Wes Crawford approached him to explain the dealer’s intention to install a system locally. “Our location and height were ideal for a mast to cover the surrounding area,” explained Simon. “We tested the proposed site, and found we had a reliable signal providing 1cm accuracy for our tractors working at farms up to nine miles distant so over our entire area we had complete cover. A neighbouring farm had a mast already operating, but when we tested the signal, it wouldn’t have provided the cover we required, so we would have needed a repeater station. Topcon links in with everything we already have and so the system offered by RW Crawford and LH-Agro was an obvious choice.”Simon said that as well as the provision of the signal, selection of the hardware was crucial; “I did my homework and looked at the options and I preferred the Topcon system as I felt it was very easy to set up, use and for the operator to follow. We have a new operator working on the farm, and after 30 minutes’ instruction, he was happy using the system. I don’t get phone calls from operators stuck in the field looking for solutions, the screen is easy to set up and logical. It’s neat in the cab, it takes 10 minutes to transfer between tractors and it has proved ideal.”Asked about productivity and cost savings resulting from the system’s use, Simon said it is hard to make a comparison. “We bought the system in November 2011 and the weather during the past three years has been very different, so conditions have not been comparable. It’s not easy to justify on paper, but often the reality is very different. However, I do know that we are now operating more accurately and it is easier for operators to make the most of the equipment. When we had it installed, and had used it for just a few weeks it was immediately obvious that previously we had been accumulating errors across the farm, and a small error on each pass becomes quite significant. On side-hills for example, the operator had to judge the degree of crabbing, but now that is all compensated for automatically and accurately.””Operators like it and they know they are doing the best job they can and see it as an aid to optimising efficiency and output,” he added.Tractor operator Josh Gregg was using the system for spraying at the time of Farmers Guide’s visit. “I very much like the Topcon screen,” he said. “It is simple to follow and use, it is very accurate and knowing the tractor will follow the correct line means I can watch the spray nozzles to check their performance rather than concentrating on following the tramlines all the time. Simple advantages like being able to see on the screen the area sprayed as it ‘paints’ the field means if I leave to fill up and return there is no danger I will lose track of where I was, so there is no danger of missing an area or of double application. It is reassuring and saves worry, and definitely helps me to do a better job.”Simon commented that the service received from RW Crawford and LH-Agro is excellent; “We had been dealing with RW Crawford for many years so had no doubts about the back-up available. LH-Agro has proved completely reliable too. We can talk to either company in the event of a problem, but usually if we have a query regarding operation then we chat with Crawford’s demonstrator who has a great deal of knowledge about the Topcon equipment. It is easy to use though; and setting up is self-explanatory, the screen leading the operator through step-by-step. We are already using it for variable rate drilling but are quite open minded about extending its use as more features become available. Our one issue is the price charged by manufacturers for the electronic adaptors which link the screens to the implements; they seem far more expensive than they need to be.”Cultivation efficiency
According to Simon, the biggest benefit so far has been improved efficiency of cultivations; “The biggest use of fuel on the farm is for cultivations, and if we can achieve optimum bout widths with the Simba Solo, then that gives us the biggest potential to save money. For tasks such as rolling and spraying, the benefit of the precise positioning is significant too, but really the fuel use for those tasks compared to heavier cultivations is quite negligible,” he said.
“We are delighted that our investment in the RTK network has been received so well by our customers,” said Wes. “We are keeping the cost at a competitive 500 per receiver per year and the LH-Agro system is suitable for use with other makes of precision farming products besides Topcon, so it is very versatile. The service is now available over most of Essex and Kent, and while there are a small number of gaps in the signal’s availability, we aim to fill in most of these before harvest this year.”
LH-Agro managing director Richard Reed is also pleased with the take-up of the system by users; “We are delighted to be working in partnership with R W Crawford to provide RTK Precision Farming solutions in the Essex and Kent area. The adoption of Topcon RTK has far exceeded our expectations with a number of growers running multiple systems having seen the overall cost benefits from their initial investment. Not just a steering system but an invaluable farm management tool opening up numerous opportunities through highly accurate and repeatable positioning.