Digital devices to help make informed decisions on crop protection and nutrient applications can make life easier for both arable and grassland managers and do not have to cost the earth, discovers Heather Briggs.
Speaking at the launch of the company’s new digital agronomy business Rhiza, which has been created by the merger between SoilQuest and IPF, Origin Enterprises head of digital, Simon Beck noted that the two companies bring together data and experience built up over more than 20 years.
However, digital information does not have to be complex, he insisted.
“In its simplest form, our Contour management platform can be used for simply logging and automatically transferring field-walking observations to farm records using a phone or a tablet,” said Mr Beck. “This can be built on at any time by adding crop-growth monitoring, yield predictions and weather-based local pest and disease monitoring.”
Two new tools provided by the platform will help arable farmers and their agronomists keep on top of the key challenges of barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV), and septoria tritici.
“Whereas we used to have up to 14 days of curative activity with our septoria chemistry, we now only have two, so we have to move towards a protectant approach,” said Agrii head of technical Clare Bend. “While the first step will always be variety choice, the second is a protectant fungicide.
“Using the new Rhiza tool will help growers and agronomists see their local risk in the context of weather and day degrees so they can make better decisions on when to apply the right protectants.”
Targeting the aphids that carry BYDV when they are active in the crop is the focus of the second Rhiza tool.
This employs hyper-local accumulated day degree data to predict when the most damaging second generation of aphids will arise from initial migrants, allowing very much better targeting of insecticide applications.
It is likely to be especially valuable from the coming autumn following the withdrawal of seed treatments, said Ms Bend.
Beyond pest and disease management, the Contour platform enables individual field performance potential to be updated throughout the season for variations in the weather and help appropriate decision-making on crop management, such as dynamic fertiliser recommendations matched to crop growth and condition on a daily basis.
“We want spring N recommendations for OSR to be based on what crops actually need on the day they are to be applied rather than the Green Area Index (GAI) two weeks or more in the past,” said Mr Beck. “We also want to give growers the ability to vary their inputs across each crop to match its varying biomass for the greatest efficiency.
“This is similar to how animal medication is geared to bodyweight to achieve the right concentration of active ingredient, and ensures each area receives exactly the right loading of key crop protection and nutritional inputs for the greatest profitability and environmental responsibility.
“Better understanding of what is happening at field level helps assess exactly when you need to apply something, and it also can suggest what and where it should be applied to get the most effective result,” he added.
Rhiza already draws on resource R&D data from a wide network of UK trials and aggregate information from more than 1,500 UK farms. In the coming decade, it will enable managers to tailor crop protection, growth regulation and foliar nutrition more precisely to need, and crop biomass, said Mr Beck.
He highlighted the main digital agronomy essentials for the future: the quality images used; how they are processed so they work together with historic data and then integrated into dynamic models of crop growth and pest and disease development. These then need to be linked to agronomic interventions to create useful information at farm level.
“Alongside all these, of course, we have synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to give a picture of the crop canopy structure and biomass (which optical imaging is unable to do), and the possibility of using microwaves that have particular cloud penetration and reliability advantages.
“As well as establishing the most valuable combination of images to use – which varies according to need and timing – to make the most of digital agronomy we must acquire them in the most appropriate way. Optical imaging can be either satellite, drone or ground-based.
“In general, the resolution of the image increases with proximity to the ground. But then so does the cost.
“All these data need to be brought together, managed and processed in meaningful ways to be useable,” he said.
“We have to filter out the noise and focus in on measurements that really matter. We also have to find the best ways of integrating historic data into the system. And the outputs need to be at a scale that matches the precision abilities of our machinery.
“Then our challenge is to integrate the data into dynamic models of crop growth and pest and disease development that take account of the full impact of all the main yield-limiting factors such as nutrition and crop protection which we can influence, and weather events and pest occurrence that we cannot control.
When integrated and processed correctly, the data can tell you exactly how much yield and margin you stand to lose if you do not act, he noted. “But the practical farm value is when it helps you decide what action to take to most reliably make the most of any given situation.
“Nevertheless, sophisticated digital decision-making can only ever enhance rather than replace the expertise of growers and their agronomists.
“It is important to appreciate too that the results it delivers will only ever be as good as the underlying fundamentals of pH, soil structure and drainage allow them to be.
“Today, in general, data is more easily accessible via smart phones and tablets, and you can build up your data little by little, field by field and have everything on a single platform which can go to the farmer or directly to the agronomist.”