Data-driven decisions open up new opportunities

Bringing all the data together within a management system has allowed a Lincolnshire arable business to rationally assess new markets. Farm manager Nick Young discusses the changes with Agrii.

The 1200ha Holton Farms in north-east Lincolnshire is fully invested in precision farming technology. From automated guidance and yield mapping to soil texture analysis to variable-rate seed maps, these systems deliver a range of management benefits, believes farm manager Nick Young.

Bringing the layers of data together in a single program to enable management decisions that support the future viability of the business, however, has been central to unlocking the true potential of the information collected.

Nick reckons data in all its forms has been central to improving profitability. Its evaluation has helped determine the extent to which the estate should engage in the sustainable farming incentive (SFI) and consider how interest in carbon sequestration might come to be an opportunity.

Crop yield data is collected by the John Deere 790 combine harvester fitted with the firm’s proprietary GreenStar system. GreenStar is also fitted to the farm’s SAM sprayer while the fleet of CASE IH tractors use CASE’s native program, AFS Connect.  The tractors connect to the farm’s two seed drills, a John Deere 750A and a Weaving Sabre Tine.

Apart from the yield recording capability of the combine harvester, which is a genuine form of data generation, both GreenStar and AFS Connect are designed to promote operational efficiency through automated guidance and section control. This may be enough for those who wish to save on fuel or crop inputs through reduced overlap. But Nick believes the insight to be harnessed from layering data from multiple sources will be central to accessing new markets such as carbon trading.

“Soils, and specifically management actions to promote and protect them, are a priority of the SFI with new actions set to be added to the list of options for 2024. It is not yet clear what will be required of land managers, but having good data on the soils that span the farm will make it easier to assess the viability of such actions be they under the SFI or Countryside Stewardship. The same applies to the hedgerow and buffer strip options while the addition of four new ‘precision farming’ actions under the SFI for 2024 is to be welcomed,” he says.

Like many farms and estates, Holton Farms has many miles of hedgerows and ditches in need of maintenance. It also has a legacy of field drains that are coming to the end of their life.

Many of the these were installed in the 1970s and ‘80s and are now needing to be replaced. To fulfil this, a programme of works spanning 15 years will see new drains installed. Running in parallel is a two-year programme with a contractor operating a tree shear to clear overgrown ditches and dykes. 

To bring all the data together for complete analysis, Holton Farms turned to Rhiza. The priority was to produce soil conductivity maps that would be the foundation of a move to variable-rate seeding.  This is done within the rotation, but the aim is to scan roughly 150ha each year beginning with those soil types with a higher magnesium content. On non-mapped fields, Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) and Green Chlorophyll Vegetation Index (GCVI) imagery is used to produce seed maps.

These maps are produced by David O’Donohoe, the Rhiza crop input specialist for the region, and sent via wireless connection from the Contour platform direct to the tractor console. “The maps are impressively accurate – more than once I’ve worried we’ll run out of seed, but it hasn’t happened yet,” notes Nick.

Seed maps can also be adapted to reflect areas where rates are to be increased for other reasons, such as previously identified patches where blackgrass presents a challenge or on headlands where compaction might hinder establishment. Using the Rhiza platform also makes life easier, he finds, and removes delays and difficulties in getting equipment to work together.

Having maps based on soil zones has become especially worthwhile. The soils at Holton Farms range from 93% sand through to some beautiful-to-work loamy clays. “When the drill operator, who has been on the farm for 43 years, tells you the system is not just easy-to-use, but also worthwhile it is immensely reassuring. Aside from the saving in seed costs, the crops develop far more evenly. To the operators, this is highly satisfying.”

From a management perspective, Nick believes one of the main advantages of the Contour platform is that it serves as a single point for data analysis. “Being able to layer soil maps, field boundaries, satellite imagery and both NDVI and GCVI makes analysis easier and more complete.

“Through the Contour platform we also produce variable rate fertiliser maps based on soil analysis for nitrogen applications in sugar beet and nitrogen and phosphate at drilling in oilseed rape. The assessments so far, suggest it will be less worthwhile in combinable crops, but that may change.”

The contrasting soils and the irrigation capacity needed to sustain them are the basis for the cropping rotation.

On the lighter soils, the rotation typically comprises six crops: winter barley – oilseed rape – rye – carrots – spring barley – spring beans.  The rye was introduced in 2021 as an alternative cereal and for its suitability to lighter soils – at 300 litres per tonne of grain produced its water requirement is typically 25% lower than that of wheat or barley.  While it does well, it may be that the area is reduced to make way for forage maize which brings management advantages through time savings and a later harvest.

On the heavier land the intention is to have 200-250ha of winter wheat, but this is weather and rotation dependant.

It is on the lighter land that soil scanning and testing is proving especially worthwhile, says Nick. “The SFI offers several options whereby the focus is on improving organic matter content; we are already applying large quantities of organic amendments in the form of manure, compost and digestate, so having data to hand that supports the SFI’s objectives is to the benefit of our application.”

Like many other farms, Holton has its share of small fields – the average field size is 12 ha – and while the temptation is simply to take the smallest or most inaccessible fields out of production, there are other considerations. Yield maps help to inform such matters. Beginning with the least productive parcels of land or those in need of remedial work, such as addressing compaction or where drainage needs attention, the intention is to place this land into the SFI.

Exploiting the opportunity presented by the SFI and HLS is an objective for the farm. “Like many other holdings, there are parcels of land that for one or more reasons are not worth farming in the current climate. The most suitable course of action in such circumstances is to take them out of production. Placing them into an environmental scheme that offers financial compensation for doing so, is the logical option.”

The precision farming tools adopted over recent years are central to identifying these land parcels, beyond the obvious array of small or out-laying fields.  Unproductive headlands, field corners and the like all up for consideration.

Quality mapping data has also helped Nick appreciate the effect of one particular threat to production: compaction. “It is the biggest impediment to performance at Holton, but its presence is not always obvious from a height of six feet.”

In many respects, compaction is unavoidable and efforts to correct it often conflict with how the farm seeks to manage and protect its soils. “Using the RHIZA Contour platform, it was possible to assess the impact on crop performance and determine the cost to the business. It quickly became clear that correcting the issue would more than pay for itself and, consequently, the cultivation regime has since been amended.”

Under pressure to cut costs, protect soils and store carbon, the farm moved to a direct drill approach wherever possible. This has worked well so far, but with sugar beet and other root crops in the rotation and large quantities of muck applied, the plough remains a vital piece of equipment.

Balancing this dilemma means ploughing is limited to where it is needed to bury muck. This is normally ahead of sugar beet, but is otherwise avoided, especially on the sands due to the risk of wind blow. Where autumn land is not ploughed, a Sumo Trio with or without discs to a depth of 200-250mm is the extent of the cultivations.

All of the above reflects the pressure to cut costs while maintaining output and promoting the environment that many others across the industry face. Where Holton Farms differs from some is perhaps how it has chosen to employ technology in a bid to achieve these ambitions. It also reflects a view of how the regulatory landscape is changing and the opportunities this may bring.

Nick highlights the SFI as an example. “We’ve generated a lot of data mainly in the form of visual assessments such as yield maps, soil texture or aerial imagery. These have been used to support both variable seed rates, identify underperforming areas in need of attention, and parcels of land suited to environmental schemes,” he notes.

“And it probably won’t stop here. The SFI is likely to be just the first of a series of policies that seeks to encourage farmers to change behaviour. Large consumers such as Nestlé, PepsiCo and General Mills have either introduced or are developing policies that pay for much the same type of activity as the SFI, but in a more targeted manner.

“The data captured so far will be central to determining interest in such schemes should the opportunity arise, but more will be needed to demonstrate their value to society.”

The emerging market for carbon is another case in point, reasons Nick. “The capacity of soil to store carbon for the long term is currently the subject of great debate and there is open disagreement about the methodology employed to calculate it, but such issues will be resolved. Of less debate, is that this carbon is likely to be of increasing interest to consumers although it is less clear how as an industry, we can profit from this.”