NI branch of I Agr E explore precision farming solutions

Peter Frost and Jim Wilson at I Agr E  October  2019
Peter Frost and Jim Wilson at I Agr E October 2019

The first event in the autumn technical meetings programme of the Northern Ireland Branch of I Agr E , held in CAFRE’s Greenmount Campus at Antrim, featured a presentation on the subject of Informed Farming Solutions.

This was given by Mr Jim Wilson , Managing Director of Soil Essentials, which provides a range of agronomy technical services to farming enterprises both for the UK and world markets.

Mr Wilson is an established arable farmer, with extensive experience in both cereals and potato production, based in Scotland near Brechin, Angus. His company employs a team of agronomists and other specialist scientific technical staff to deliver precision farming services to other farmers. These range through soil sampling, in-field monitoring, aerial crop surveillance, the assembly and interpretation of digital field maps and other precision data to guide optimum husbandry practices for current and future crop years.

Soil Essentials is also the Northern UK dealership for the Trimble range of ISObus compatible auto-guidance and control systems for tractors and field machinery. These provide, in response to digital field maps, accurate and repeatable bout-width steering in the field as well as automatic on the move control of on/off and application rate on sprayers/spreaders. The Trimble range also includes on-board harvest yield recording/mapping equipment which links through Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to send the information directly back to the farm office.

Soil Solutions also provides KORE, its own cloud based on-line precision software platform, to observe and guide arable field production systems. It utilises the physical measurements from soil sampling and yield mapping along with aerial drone and satellite surveillance images to assess crop condition and growth stage. Large amounts of data are collected, stored and analysed within the mathematical model. The UK’s met. office weather forecasting system data, which is now a reasonable indicator of UK weather for one week in advance, can be interfaced to provide early warning of conditions which favour crop disease development . Met Office historic database records extend back to 2012 and help to establish longer term average weather patterns for specific areas. The testing and development of the Soil Essentials systems has, and continues, to receive welcome support from official bodies such as Innovate UK and the European Space Agency.

Soil health assessments are based on soil sampling include pH, nutrient status and soil structure. The digital field maps assembled from the collected data now facilitate accurate cost-saving automatic variable rate application of lime. fertiliser and crop protection products. On-the-move identification of some individual weeds or weed groups is now feasible and they can be spot-sprayed by a system such as Trimble’s Weedseeker 2 Spot. Soil Essentials is also working closely with UK research centres in developing new methods of assessing soil condition and health. One example is biological monitoring through DNA analysis of the species extent and distribution of soil nematodes. The latest satellite surveillance system technology can now assess soil moisture content down to 100mm below the surface as a guide for irrigation decisions.

Satellite information technology and its accessibility is steadily evolving. In Europe the Sentinel 2 system provides freely available surveillance, 10m pixel size, from 2 satellites launched by the European Space Agency. Systems such as RGD, NDVI and NDRE are used (cloud-free skies permitting) to update the available pictures. As well as measuring crop canopy cover others aspects of field plant health can also now be assessed through the aerial pictures. There is a system of around 160 mini-satellites in orbit which can view and update every square metre of land on earth every day! Outside of agricultural applications it was interesting to hear how the same technology has been used, commercially, to assess the car park attendance density at competing supermarkets in the US to assess public response to sales promotion events.

Use of drone technology

Drones for aerial surveillance are now inexpensive and well equipped. One example is the DJ1 Photon 4 complete with its RTK receiver and high resolution colour camera. It can be programmed to routinely fly over the selected fields with a typical 70% overlap flight pattern. Viewing the target image from several angles enables the software analysis to measure (by triangulation) tree and some crop heights. The KORE system analysis has adequate in-built capacity to process all of the assembled data.

The main role of most systems is to check plant population and crop canopy establishment. They also identify problem areas affected by low fertility, compaction, water-logging or crop disease.

The size of the observation grids are commonly arranged to match implement (e.g. sprayer boom and fertiliser spreader) working widths. Application field maps (compiled from average values over multiple fly-overs) are used to control on/off and variable rate settings for control of application machinery. Variable rate seeding is also now available for cereal crops to select the best plant population densities and minimise risk of lodging in the areas of high nutrient status.

Potato crop yield

prediction

An example of how far practical application of the technology has progressed is Soil Essentials’ development and provision of their Tuberzone husbandry management and yield prediction system for potato crops. It was first developed with one specific seed crop variety but it can now deal with 50 potato varieties, as grown across several different world locations. It has been developed from the results of a large number of sample digs at various growth stages. The size and yield data is integrated with the updated drone taken field crop images. This has been refined, over several growth years, into a tuber size and yield prediction model which is now providing results close to the actual harvest yields. This uses both aerial images and the field data sources described above to monitor crop establishment and guide the application timings of fungicides to control potato blight. Whilst total yield prediction is important for any commercial crop, the value of a seed potato crop is also very sensitive to tuber size distribution. This means that growers must halt crop growth, by desiccation of the haulm. as soon as most of the tubers reach the required size. Until now, this has involved a lot of sample hand digs across the field area as the basis for the grower’s decision to burn off. This can be difficult to get right where large areas are involved. Growing conditions vary across fields and if the whole field is burnt off at the same time some areas may lose out on yield of the target size tubers. Recent yield / size results from a crop in Poland have proved the system to be much more accurate than the grower’s own estimates. The separate size assessment of sections of a field and use of separate optimum burning off times is now feasible using automatic on/off/variable rate control for the sprayer working on the information from the updated digital field map.

Crop yield can now be measured, and transmitted back to the farm base, through sensors on working potato harvesters. It is a useful indicator, even if it cannot match the grain yield monitoring accuracy on a combine, because of factors such as soil adherence to tubers.

The work around Tuberzone is supported by field machinery manufacturers, potato product processors and the James Hutton Institute in Scotland.

Discussion topics

Mr Wilson’s thought provoking presentation generated a lot of technical discussion around the concepts described above. Members were all impressed by the sustained rate of development of the technology and its commercial adoption. Branch chairman Peter Frost voiced thanks to Mr Wilson for his most interesting and informative presentation. His enthusiasm inspired everyone. More information about Soil Essentials and its services can be viewed at www.soilessentials.com and www.koresolution.com

The next Northern Ireland I Agr E Branch meeting takes place on Tuesday 12th November 2019 at 8.00pm in McMillan Specialist Cars, Unit 10, Pasketts Close, Kilbegs Road, Antrim BT41 4NN around the subject of “The Porsche family story and a discussion around the US “diesel emissions scandal”. As usual, everyone who is interested will be very welcome to attend.