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Diversification created leading precision agriculture supplier

William Mumford was under pressure to diversify, the business he created was called AS Communications

With wheat at 80/t on his 120ha (300 acre) Cambridgeshire farm, William Mumford was under pressure to diversify. This was back in 1989 and, 25 years later, the business he created was called AS Communications (UK) Ltd – a leading supplier of precision agriculture equipment and services. David Williams reports.“We started off carrying out fabrication work and repairs for local farmers,” explains managing director William Mumford. “At that time CB radios and two-way communications equipment was becoming popular on farms, and we saw that as an obvious add-on to the business and something which would benefit local farms. However, that business was killed off almost overnight by the availability of mobile phones but at that time we were offered a contract helping support users of Massey Ferguson yield mapping systems, through the installation of a base station network, which was well-suited to our experience.”Dealing first with correction service provider Omnistar, William was later approached in 1999 by Trimble Agriculture, keen for his business to represent the manufacturer as a dealer in the UK. Since then, Cambridgeshire-based AS Communications has been the official Trimble reseller for the south of the UK.”We sold the first autosteer system in Europe to a local Cambridgeshire farmer,” says William. “It was basic, but worked well, and we fed information back on its use and performance to Trimble to help the company improve its range, and as the portfolio expanded we were able to use our farm as a base to fit the kit, and to demonstrate products to potential customers.”We gained new customers across our trading area, from Cornwall to north Lincolnshire but farms in the Fenland areas were the first high volume users, vegetable growers finding the precision a huge benefit,” he adds. Full range of optionsAs modern precision farming systems have developed to provide accuracy and a range of functions which could only have been dreamed of 25 years ago, AS Communications has taken on additional brands, carefully selected for the specialist products they provide for its customers.  “We can go to a farm and supply everything needed for precision farming,” says William. “We have a superb team of specialist installation and support engineers and can supply equipment for new machines, or for retro-fitting to machinery of almost any brand and age. From one technician working from the base, we currently have a team of 14 covering the same area.”Entry-level products can be sent out for installation by farm staff, but William recommends that most are installed by one of the company’s trained specialists. He points out that hydraulic autosteer and variable rate control systems are complex, and installation and training by experienced installation and support engineers is essential.Brands represented by the company include Trimble Agriculture, Dakota Micro camera monitoring systems, Dickey-john Farmstead product control systems and Farm Works farm management software.The company stocks a full range of products from Trimble Agriculture suitable for the UK market. Entry-level products include the EZ-Guide 250 lightbar, which uses free DGPS correction for basic guidance during fertiliser spreading and spraying jobs. More advanced guidance is available through the multi-function CFX-750 display, versatile Trimble FmX integrated display and all-new Trimble TMX-2050 display.Released in 2013, the TMX-2050 display comes with a large 30.8cm high-definition colour touchscreen display built on the flexible Android operating system and a revolutionary new Connected Farm dashboard for managing data in the cloud.All of these guidance displays can be upgraded to assisted steering, automatic sprayer section control, variable rate application and yield monitoring in the future along with more accurate Trimble correction services for high-precision jobs.The company also offer a wide range of assisted steering systems for different vehicle types including tractors, combines, tracklayers and self-propelled sprayers. These include the EZ-Steer and EZ-Pilot assisted steering systems along with the Autopilot steering solution with advanced T3 compensation that integrates directly into vehicle hydraulics.The Autopilot system plugs into many factory guidance-ready vehicles and can also be retro fitted to the hydraulics of vehicles with no provision for automatic steering. Implement guidance solutions to accurately guide and steer implements on rolling terrain are also available.One notable new product from Trimble Agriculture is the UX5 unmanned aerial system which, William says, has really caught the imagination of potential users in the UK.The UX5 was shown for the first time in May this year and was on the Trimble stand at Cereals 2014. “It has the ability to photograph large areas very quickly,” says William. “Interest has been from agronomists, large vegetable growers and agronomy companies, all of which can see the huge potential it offers.We have our own demonstration unit arriving during this autumn, and already have a member of staff trained to operate it. Its use prior to the first dose of fungicide, PGR or nitrogen will help growers determine appropriate timings for best response.”Standard or near infra-red images can be recorded, allowing crop problems to be identified quickly and easily. Black-grass monitoring is an obvious application, the problem weed being identified in patches down to 50cm. “The potential benefit is huge as, with individual sprayer nozzle switching, the field map produced could be used to allow specific patches down to 50cm across to be treated, rather than whole spray widths, saving chemical and time,” explains William.The UX5 is a large investment, at approximately 35,000, but the package includes operator training and qualifications, which are essential. “If it is used for commercial purposes then the operator has to be trained, qualified and insured,” explains William. “The price includes a two-day CAA course, five days of flight training and a flight test, and the same would be necessary for any other unmanned aircraft when it is used for commercial purposes.”The technology is expected to catch on, and William believes that in the future, unmanned aerial systems could be garaged on the top of a farm building, taking off remotely each morning if the weather is suitable to photograph the farm, allowing growers to have a set of images of their crops on which to make decisions, first thing every morning. However, while the technology is available to do this now, legislation and public acceptance are obstacles at present, as the UX5 must be in sight of the operator at all times.Requiring less substantial investment, the GreenSeeker handheld crop sensor is a measurement device that can be used for basic NDVI (Normalised Difference Vegetation Index) testing that costs approximately 450. William says he cannot think of another product which costs so little but which is capable of generating such significant returns. “It can aid management decisions to the point of saving thousands or improving yields significantly. Every farm should have one, whatever its size, to tell growers whether their crops are healthy, or not.”Connected Farm and Farm Works farm management software is further developing to allow greater integration of machines and information, says William. Data can now be sent directly from machines working in the field keeping farm husbandry records up to date, creating a snapshot of the farm’s crops and treatments applied at any given time. “We have a handful of growers using it already and not all of them are arable growers. Customers so far also include contractors, research centres and plant breeders,” he says.  “With access through apps too, it isn’t far off being a useful management tool, and with the ability to send and receive files from the field to the office, the technology is getting really exciting.”Dickey-john Farmstead is the brand chosen by AS Communications for product control and monitoring equipment, including drill blockage sensor systems and for Isobus controllers suitable for retro-fitting to older tractors. Analytical products from Dickey-john including handheld Mini-GAC moisture meters and soil compaction testers are also available through the company.Dickey-john ASM II drill blockage sensor systems are popular, providing a prompt alert if blockages occur.Dakota Micro AgCam and OverView cameras, compatible with the CFX-750 display and FmX integrated display, are supplied, chosen for their ability to withstand many years of harsh farm use, and with their exceptional image quality William says they complement the existing high-quality product ranges of the company.It isn’t just the largest arable farms across the UK currently investing in equipment according to William. “We sell as many lightbar systems to grassland and livestock farmers in the west as we do the high-end systems to arable farmers in the east. Most new customers come to us with a specific use in mind; for example variable rate fertiliser application, but then come back later for a full Autopilot steering solution when they realise the potential benefits. The great thing about modern high-end systems is that we can ‘unlock’ different features to suit the users’ needs as they arise, so they are really quite future-proof.”While demand for high RTK correction, accurate to 2.5cm pass-to-pass, is demanded for bedforming and drilling, William says there are many users opting for less precise, satellite based broadacre EGNOS or Trimble RangePoint RTX correction services, accurate to within 15cm pass-to-pass for jobs such as spraying and cultivations. More accurate Trimble CenterPoint RTX correction, accurate to within 3.8cm pass-to-pass is also available for customers that do not have RTK coverage but need high-level accuracy for drilling jobs. Dealer ServiceApproximately half the products supplied by AS Communications are sold through machinery dealers to end-users. “We work with as many as we can, from small independent businesses to the largest multi-franchise dealers. Many have their own trained technicians and fit the products themselves, whereas others take advantage of our experienced engineers to carry out the installations but, either way, we are still there to provide back-up when needed. ” Signal providerAn RTK network is operated by the company across the UK, including the network provided by the farmer-owned RTK Farming Ltd in the eastern counties. Generally, to justify installing an RTK base station there needs to be demand from three or more average-sized growers, but William says with the coverage already in place, most new installations are to increase availability in weak areas between covered areas.“The signal service we offer is excellent and very competitively priced through RTK Farming Ltd, and is especially useful for contractors working over a large area. However, we do have individual farms within the area covered which prefer to be independent and we have provided an installation and full maintenance service for these too.The area served by Trimble RTK networks supplied and supported by AS Communications continues to increase, and the company is responding to increased demand in the south west of the UK, by constructing a new network to cover Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Dorset and parts of Somerset. “Demand is growing from all farm types in that area, and the larger area of maize and vegetable crops being produced means a precise and reliable signal is needed,” says William. Training serviceAcceptance of precision agriculture by users is essential in order to achieve the biggest benefit, he explains. “There is often resistance to new technology when it is being introduced on farms, but with good training and clear explanation as to the benefits, we have found users are quick to see its potential and enjoy using our products.”We provide effective training when the kit is installed, and provide free region-based training sessions as part of our on-going training package service. In December 2014 we are running our annual GPS Clinic over four days at three different locations across the UK.During 2013, we had 250 users attend our GPS Clinic over three days at two locations. These days are an opportunity to offer product training and introduce new features and products that are available to our existing customers. We provide handy hints and tips and users can obtain advice from our team on site.”For the future William says he is confident that the brands represented by his company will continue their development of leading technology. “Things have moved on considerably and much of the time we are achieving accuracy well under 20mm.When we started offering guidance products users were looking for accuracy in terms of knowing the tractor was in the correct position; now they are looking at the position of individual seeds. Accuracy will improve still further, and remote sensing technology will become more widely used, with cameras able to identify weeds and areas for treatment directly ahead of spray nozzles.We expect to see nozzles used to apply pesticides, similar to those in an ink-jet printer, where individual weeds are identified and sprayed. We are right at the start of what can be achieved with remote sensing.”Challenges include the amount of data acquired. “We need to work out what is useful and what isn’t,” he says. The amount of data we can gain is mind-blowing, and handling it efficiently is essential.”William explains also that an obstacle to progress currently is the speed of rural broadband. “Together with mobile broadband, it is woefully inadequate,” he says, “and restricts what we could achieve with the technology we have available.”


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