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Enthusiasm is key to benefitting from precision farming data

Precision farming products are widely considered to be the key to better performance, improved accuracy, and optimum outputs, but is their potential being fully utilised? David Williams visited John Deere’s German precision farming research facility and a farm in Norfolk, to find out.
Carl Pitelen (left) with Bixley Farms manager Tim Dixon and the Field Connect soil moisture monitoring system in a field of mint grown for estate owner; Colman’s.
Since the first light-bar guidance systems became available in the 1990s, replacing the decades-old technique of lining up the tractor’s radiator cap with a stick in the field and a tree on the headland, the rate at which precision farming products have developed has been dramatic.
Driver aids maintain accuracy hour-after-hour, long after an operator would be losing concentration, and automatically steer tractors to within tolerances which can’t even be registered by the driver in the cab. Spreaders automatically adjust spread applications, applying granules exactly where needed, while sprayers can be equipped with automatic nozzle switching to apply several chemicals in one pass, but only where each is needed. Drills and planters use field maps to adjust the seeding rates to suit any desired parameters and every activity carried out is monitored and documented, and the data sent back to the farm office – all automatically.
In the farm office, or anywhere with an internet connection, the farmer can monitor activities, but the image of the farmer sitting at his desk like a spider at the centre of his farming empire web, managing everything without needing to visit his fields has remained something to be imagined, rather than real. The popular conception is that farms in the USA are light years ahead of those in Europe in terms of making the most of available technology, but John Deere disputes this, and points out that a larger proportion of farms in Europe make use of the systems, with a handful of UK farms as far advanced as any.
Interest & enthusiasm is key
Manager for Norfolk based Bixley Farms, Tim Dixon, first became involved with precision farming techniques when, at a previous farm, yield mapping was specified on a new combine. Seven years ago, he was appointed manager for the Colman family looking after four farms totalling 1,300ha (3,200 acres), close to Norwich. The business purchases most of its machinery through local John Deere main dealer, Ben Burgess, which was an early advocate of precision farming products to its customers.
The farm sprayer is sent application instructions wirelessly, but written copies are also provided to comply with legislation.
“We enjoy dealing with Ben Burgess because of the service we receive,” explains Tim. “During peak periods it is open Saturday afternoons and Sundays in addition to normal hours and we know we can easily get hold of the staff at any time. Having that level of back-up means we are confident to invest in precision farming technology, in the knowledge that if anything does go wrong with any equipment, then it will be up and working again very quickly.”
Soon after Tim started, yield mapping was introduced on a John Deere 9780 CTS combine and auto-steer was purchased on an 8520T the same year. Fertiliser applications are carried out using an Amazone ZAT-S, capable of variable rate application and equipped with John Deere section control, which uses field maps sent from the farm computer to provide the settings. However, the farm has been regulating fertiliser application in conjunction with yield mapping for seven years, through information provided by SOYL.
Fields are tested by SOYL for P, K and Mg as well as pH every five years and soil maps are produced. Sewage sludge has been applied in the past and phosphate levels are naturally high but can be patchy. ‘Planet’ software on the GateKeeper system is used to generate the maps for use during application.
Cereals are drilled at variable rates in accordance with mapping data between early September and October, after which later drilling is carried out at a flat rate, continuing until late December due to the farm’s sugar beet crop. Tim considers the historic field yield map records put the farm at a significant advantage over those just starting out with the systems. “The difficulty is working out what to do with the data from the yield mapping,” he says. “Because of crop rotations some crops are only grown once in three or four years, so what data should be used to determine the seed rate when there is no data for that specific crop type? With seven years of data it is easier for us as we can look back and make decisions based on figures generated three to four years before.
MyJohnDeere allows monitoring of the whole fleet of suitably-equipped vehicles, including their positions on a map of the farm.
“An interesting conclusion we have drawn from overlaying yield maps for different crops on the same field over the eight years is that they don’t match, and different areas of the field produce the highest yields for different crops, so using one year’s worth of yield data to produce seeding rate and fertiliser application maps for other crops would not be a good move,” he adds.
As well as being used for generating seed rate and fertiliser application maps, the yield maps show problems unrelated to soil fertility. “The combine yield mapping shows us clearly where yields suffer due to rabbits on headlands or factors such as compaction, or poor drainage,” he says. “Where rabbits are the issue, then what do we do? We can either try to control the rabbit numbers, plant more seed in an attempt to compensate for the lost plants, or we drop the seed rate to save money, and let that crop take its chances. There is a lot of information generated through yield mapping and it isn’t as simple as asking ourselves what we have to do to improve the poorer areas as that might not be practical or possible. We also need to ask ourselves whether, if the cereal prices drop to #60-#70/t, it is a sensible decision to actually grow wheat on those poorer areas, but at least having this data will allow us to make informed decisions.”
Tim says that even taking the poorer performing areas into account, saving money isn’t the main objective. “When we drill at variable rates, we usually find that on reaching the end of the field we have used the same quantity of seed as if we had drilled at a flat rate. It is just about using the seed to achieve the most efficient returns, so the high yielding areas tend to be drilled at higher rates than standard to optimise their potential,” he added.
The only crops on which fertiliser is not applied using variable rates are sugar beet and malting barley. “We have to be careful we don’t exceed the N-Max figure on the beet,” he says, “so we use a flat rate, but in my opinion the crops would benefit if we applied more. On the malting barley, we have to be careful not to have areas of peak application rates which could affect quality for malting, so these just receive a flat rate too.”
Four years ago, when the farm updated its precision beet drill, an Isobus-controlled Vicon Synchro-drive model was purchased, allowing individual row control for precise headland shut-off. Ridging up for potatoes is also carried out using RTK auto-steer systems. “Accuracy when ridging is critical, as it affects all subsequent operations,” says Tim. “The days spent in the cab concentrating hard are tiring and use of the auto-steer system helps operators do a good job, and reduces fatigue, improving conditions for them.”
The farm fleet currently includes an S680i combine equipped with yield mapping software, RTK and wireless data transfer; five tractors all fitted with auto-steer, including an 8320R used for heavy tillage, and three also equipped with wireless data transfer including a 7290R used for drilling and a 6150R equipped with Isobus and used for fertiliser applications. For beet drilling an Isobus-equipped 6630 is used. Spraying is carried out by a John Deere 5430i self-propelled sprayer with RTK, full section control and wireless data transfer.
The Field Connect data is conveniently displayed on a graph through MyJohnDeere.
John Deere’s web-based gateway is used to link with the farm’s Farmplan GateKeeper records system, and allows access to machine operating records from anywhere with an internet connection. “I can send work plans direct from GateKeeper to the tractors using the John Deere portal,” explains Tim, “but for the sprayer we also print paper copies for compliance reasons. The John Deere system allows the work records of all tractors equipped with telematics to be remotely checked, and an instant ‘dashboard view’ is available which displays working speed, location, and settings of most key parameters. While this might be interesting to view occasionally, Tim says he rarely uses it as his team of experienced staff need little monitoring, but it has proved useful when setting up a tractor and implement combination for the first time, as the dealer has been able to provide advice based on the settings displayed.
Optimising water use
With its mix of soils and crops, irrigation is an important tool on the farms and, in peak season five reels with rain-guns are in almost constant use, but with water application andexpensive operation, it is essential that the resource is managed to best effect, and that Tim can justify what is put on and when. “I had heard of John Deere’s Field Connect soil moisture monitoring systems and believed they could help us to optimize water use efficiency. We have been trialing a Field Connect unit in our mint crop since early April, and are looking forward to receiving two further trial units; one for the crop of processing potatoes and the other for those for the pre-pack market. Since mint is such an unusual crop there is no readily-available water-use data, as there is for potatoes, but it is a very valuable crop to us, and we need to maximise quality, using irrigation when necessary to prevent stress. Mint roots to 60cm depth, but most of the root bunch is between 20-30cm so an understanding of what is happening as soil water content changes and the crop reacts will help us make judgements.”
Field Connect consists of a soil probe linked to a data transfer box and weather station. Installed in the field of growing crop, it automatically transmits data to the John Deere portal, either through a mobile telephone network or through a wireless signal. The probe has sensor rings at 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50cm depths and these monitor water content constantly. After a short time the system creates its own ‘budget lines’ within which the soil water content is ‘normal’ and above or below which it is unusual. Tim says that, although the system is already proving helpful this year, the greater benefit will be in following years when data can be compared to earlier figures, which will help him make informed judgements.
The user can programme parameters below which the system will automatically send a text message or email to alert him that the soil moisture content is becoming low. “It has been interesting that already this year I have received warning messages,” he says, “but on each occasion I was already considering using the irrigator, my experience telling me that water application was needed. To me this shows the system is accurate, and it is reassuring because usually we work with soil moisture deficit figures whereas the John Deere system calculates the amount of water in a given volume of soil. I need to work out how to equate the two for our land, but I am happy that the probes are providing the monitoring we require.”
The farm has recently been granted planning permission for a new 360,000m3 irrigation reservoir, which will double its water storage capacity. “This is a big investment and we believe that our use of the Field Connect systems will help demonstrate that we are using water as effectively as possible, and could help us obtain a grant to part-fund it. Also, if we can maximise water use efficiency by timing it perfectly or reducing any over-application, then we could look at using it for other crops including cereals and sugar beet. When our license renewals are due, we have to show that we are applying water responsibly and the Field Connect data will provide evidence that we are doing all we can. If, in the future, this helps us retain our existing extraction authorisation when supplies are under pressure then we just can’t put a value on that benefit,” he adds.
Use of the sensors for the sugar beet crop is something which excites Tim. “Margins are under severe pressure, and if we can increase our yields through careful water management, we can maintain the production volume but reduce the land area we allocate to the crop. I would be very interested to use Field Connect in the beet and record water content while monitoring the crop’s condition. It is obvious that when the leaves start curling we must be losing yield and we might find through accurate monitoring that it takes very little added water to keep the crop above wilting point,” he explanis.
Discipline needed
“Having used variable rate fertiliser applications early in the season, it is tempting later on, when we are flat-out applying the final dose and spraying at the same time, to abandon variable rate in favour of flat-rate to save time on administration, says Tim. “Variable rate applications take extra planning as time is needed to make up the dose maps, but we have always taken the attitude that it is worth putting in the effort necessary to make sure all inputs are applied as accurately as possible. Next season we will be moving to liquid fertiliser through the self-propelled sprayer for the first application, to ensure precise dosing right up to the field edge but it will be busy applying pesticides later, so we will continue to use granular fertilisers through the Amazone for subsequent applications.”
One big jigsaw
Asked what the most important product on the farm is, in relation to precision farming equipment, Tim says everything combines to make up the precision farming story. “We might decide in future years that the new water sensors are just as important as the fertiliser spreader,” he says, “and everything combines to play its part.”
Each operator tends to have his own tractor, but when necessary he can personalise an alternative by simply swapping the control screen complete with his preferred settings. “This is an advantage as it provides flexibility,” says Tim. “We had a problem with the sprayer one Saturday afternoon, and a second hand machine was delivered to us the same day, and we simply swapped the screen to continue with our work. With the back-up from the dealer to provide this sort of service, the ability to transfer the screen and carry on applications using the same field mapping for continuity gives great peace of mind.”
Tim admits that initially the farm employees were skeptical when the RTK- controlled steering systems were introduced. “Our operators take a pride in their work and are very traditional and obviously felt that their considerable skills weren’t being utilised at first. But now, having had the systems for several years, not one of them would go back. With FarmSight consultant Carl Pitelen from Ben Burgess available to help them when issues occur, and with the excellent tuition and training the dealer provides, even those who really disliked it at first now use it as a tool to help them do an even better job, and we see them having progressed over the years from A-B lines to using it to put in curved headlands creating fictional boundaries for implement control; they use it whenever they can. I even found one of them using it for chain harrowing but, on reflection, over the whole operation, it probably saved half a day. I am convinced now that no matter what the age and experience of the operator, they will quickly get used to it and become enthusiastic about its potential.”
Service Advisor Remote has proved beneficial to the farm and the dealer, allowing software updates to be carried out remotely and for faults to be identified as they occur. “We can check the fleet remotely, see what needs doing and contact the farm to arrange a convenient time for work to be carried out,” explains Carl. “There are some faults we can correct remotely too these days, without needing a spanner or hammer, and that saves a visit to the farm and inconvenience to the farmer.”
Can the cost be justified?
Investment in precision farming equipment on an enterprise the size of Bixley Farms is considerable, and Tim says it is hard to justify purely in terms of financial savings achieved. “We have targeted specific areas in our use of the equipment and many of the benefits are impossible to quantify accurately. However, if its use helps me achieve crops with a more uniform green area index, then I know the yield will be more uniform too. And if when we are harvesting, RTK guidance allows us to use every inch of the header so we increase output and reduce overall fuel use, that benefit is quantifiable, but if it also means we complete the task 15 minutes sooner and just before rain, then clearly that has an even greater value, but how do we put a price on that?”
As for management time-savings resulting, Tim has his doubts. “There are aspects of the farm’s management which do become much simpler and more efficient. We have four agronomists between the four farms and one uses GateKeeper, so his spray planning maps are sent direct to the sprayer but the others all arrive on a paper format. We need paper copies anyway, because the display on the sprayer doesn’t tell the driver how much chemical to put in the tank and other details like that, so they need adding in regardless. To get the best from it I believe one has to be interested, and I enjoy using it to help my management and believe I can manage the farm better as a result. But, the downside is that there is an awful lot of data generated and I have to decide which to use and which to ignore, and making decisions still relies on gut feeling. I definitely spend more time planning now, but that means the field operations are carried out more efficiently.
“Being able to access all the operational data from anywhere is an advantage in terms of management efficiency but also means I am tempted to look at what is happening on the farm while on holiday. I enjoy it though, and sometimes sit down with my children to look at the screen in the morning, but it is more for my own interest than for any other reason, as I have an excellent team in place.”
So with Tim firmly convinced of the benefits, what will be the next investment in precision farming equipment for the farm? “Variable rate chemical application would be a significant step forward for us,” he explains. “If we could blanket apply fungicide, but inject herbicides as needed for spot treatment of specific weed patches it would be great for the environment and would save money too.
“Yield mapping of our potatoes and sugar beet would also be useful, to complete the yield map records and help us make decisions, but with our beet lifted by contractors, we couldn’t expect them to invest in yield monitoring technology without us paying extra for that service, and then that relies on other clients willing to pay for it too, to justify that cost. Another thing we are looking at is tying in cultivations to soil compaction maps, and we have started work on this already.
“If we didn’t have Ben Burgess so local, we probably wouldn’t have moved past A-B lines, but with John Deere supplying the tractors and equipment plus the back-up and software we can get everything through one supplier. It is delivered and it works. We have the odd issue with Isobus compatibility but that is usually easily sorted and we wouldn’t be benefitting through use of this technology were it not for the dealer.”
“From our point of view having Tim nearby keen to experiment and try out new technology is a great help as he wants it to work, and so does his team,” comments Carl. “The employees are enthusiastic and supply valuable feedback to us and to the manufacturer.”
John Deere
Many of the arguments suggested by Tim in favour of the precision farming products were echoed by John Deere precision farming specialists: integrated solutions implementation manager Georg Larscheid, advertising and communications specialist Julia Reichelt, product marketing manager Simon Schowalter and solutions product line manager Stefan Beilharz, at the company’s European Technical Innovation Centre at Kaiserslautern in Germany.
Farmers Guide visited John Deere’s European technology centre in Germany. Pictured with test tractors and implements are (l-r) Julia Reichelt, Georg Larscheid and Simon Schowalter.
“We cannot expect farmers to progress in one go from traditional farming methods to a fully connected farm,” explains Georg. “It is how we get them there that is important.”
Examples of benefits for users from adoption of some specific areas include increased productivity of 10-15 per cent for guidance systems, five per cent for sprayer section control, and 3-5 per cent for automated machine adjustment, according to John Deere. “Almost anything is possible, but we need to work out what customers are willing to pay for. Telematics and data management are becoming increasingly relevant to all farms and, as well as increased efficiency of the enterprise, benefits include improved ability to meet legislative requirements.”
Simplifying this process is a brand new Mobile Data Transfer function which enables users to wirelessly transfer agronomic data to and from non-John Deere displays, and from the company’s GreenStar 3, 2630 displays, fitted to older machines not equipped with JD Link, to the Operations Centre. John Deere says this provides a simple solution for customers running older or mixed-fleet equipment as it eliminates the need for manual transfer of data.
Georg points out that if John Deere, or any other company, looks at its data management systems as exclusive, then failure is almost certain, as it is essential that technology is developed to work with other manufacturers’ systems too. “It is easier if the farmer has a fleet made up totally of John Deere equipment,” he says, “but we have to be realistic and customers do have other brands too. We collect and utilise data from John Deere machines through the MyJohnDeere interface and need to find ways to integrate as much as possible from other brands through the one package, and Isobus commonality is an important part of this. We see this as essential because a ‘connected farm’ needs connected machines.”
Recently announced is a MyJobs App, which works along-side the Operations Centre, and which is designed to simplify the management process by making it easy to share task information. The manager can add and define tasks to be carried out and the information syncs with the MyJobs Apps of mobile devices carried by operators and other employees, replacing considerable time spent contacting everyone by telephone or ‘to do’ lists which can easily be mislaid.
The user journey
“Automatic steering systems provide easily identifiable benefits, so are readily accepted after just a few days’ use, but the advantages of telematics are harder to demonstrate over a brief period, and its value increases over time. Up to 15 per cent fuel and emissions savings have been proven through its use with truck fleets, and we would expect greater savings in agriculture as the industry is more complex,” he adds.
John Deere has identified combines as one of the obvious starting points for the technology, where benefits are easily found. As part of the ‘connected combine’ approach, dealers offer pre-season training and set-up, followed by machine optimisation during harvest, combined with in-season remote machine support. “We are moving into a consultancy service world and the availability of automation functions and the vision of machines working autonomously could become reality although to get to that point there has to be a transition through the stages.”
Georg said one issue of concern to farmers and contractors is data security, but he explained that John Deere views users’ data as customer property, and its security is viewed as essential as the guarding of John Deere’s engine blueprints. “Customers are totally in control of their data, and who it is shared with,” he says. “Users can create user profiles for partners, such as agronomists, allowing them to access the system, but they can set parameters governing which data areas are available for them to access. The more integration we can provide then the greater the potential benefit and we believe ‘Information-enabled agriculture’ will be the next big thing to increase production on farms.”
As more tractors are supplied telematics-ready, John Deere says take-up of the benefits available is proving high with at least 95 per cent of owners of equipped machines allowing dealers to see data and alerts.
Julia Reichelt says rapid progress and acceptance of remote management solutions by farmers means the technology shouldn’t be regarded as belonging to the future; “It’s becoming real already,” she stresses.
Two levels of remote access are available; JDLink Select and JDLink Ultimate, the base version priced at 175 euros per year and the higher version at 275 euros per year. Ultimate is provided in all models from base 7R, 8R and 9R tractors as well as S and T series combines, the new R4040i sprayer and all self-propelled forage harvesters. “With JDLink Ultimate and data transfer, the cost of the full package is equivalent to the cost of a mobile phone subscription per month. If a user doesn’t want the full telecommunications package then there is always the option of transferring data by usb-stick.
Optimise nutrient application
The company points out that the latest technology is also helping users meet environmental legislation and gain maximum benefit from manure and digestate applications. Shown for the first time at Agritechnica 2013, the company’s manure sensing system constantly monitors slurry constituents during application which means precise records can be kept regarding the amount of fertiliser applied. A sensor, fitted in-line on umbilical hose applicators or slurry tanks continuously records the quality allowing the operator to set parameters such as the maximum amount of a particular constituent to apply. Controlling the tractor through Tractor Implement Management (TIM), the travel speed is adjusted automatically to meet the desired application rates. Documentation can be produced automatically showing the work area and amounts of each nutrient applied.
“If the user knows the constituents of the slurry, he can work out how much additional fertiliser is needed to optimise crop production, gaining maximum efficiency, or if he is trying to dispose of as much digestate as possible, then he can set the system to apply the maximum quantity allowed on an area,” explained Georg. “It addresses variability issues, and provides immediate information as well as time and cost savings compared to having samples analysed in a laboratory prior to application. If slurry is being bought or sold, the price can be based on quality rather than quantity; it is a new way of thinking about the industry.”
Georg explains that using subsequent variable rate fertiliser applications is possible, based on application maps produced during the slurry application process. “Previously this depended on personal judgment but we can now determine this was probably wrong. The system has huge potential benefits, and for those who also run forage harvesters the use of the sensor as part of the HarvestLab system helps justify the initial investment,” he says.
Pushing boundaries further
“Our main priority in the coming years is to enable farms to get the best value from all the data produced,” explains Georg. “The technical capabilities to allow variable rate applications to be combined with yield maps has been there for years but too complicated to utilise, but with data generated now in real-time and more easily shareable, we don’t need to be thinking of super new developments but to better use what we have now. Partner integration is key as this means the data can be combined with the knowledge of specialists to gain maximum benefit. Taking this forward users can share this data with chemical companies, for example, so that they can provide a prescription service based on a number of previous years’ yield maps for a specific field.
“Back-up is essential and every John Deere dealer will have dedicated FarmSight specialists within five years, as dealers have to be in a position to support this technology,” he adds. “Businesses have had to grow – farms have got larger and contractors are providing their services over more fields and wider areas. Pressure on margins is growing due to increased costs of fuel, demands to meet government targets and, all the time, to meet increasing standards of quality with labour and land costs also rising. We have to make sure our products improve competitiveness, and help users manage the variability of the markets, and with precise data to quantify what has been done, users can make smarter decisions and present a better farming image to the public.”

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