The benefits far outweighed the costs in the first year of using the Omnia digital farming platform at one East Yorkshire farm, and with input prices hitting new highs, further efficiency gains look set to benefit the bottom line even more.
The 260 ha (650 acres) business, F.D. Bird & Sons, near Beverley, began using Omnia in 2020, working with Hutchinsons agronomist Ben Jagger, to analyse existing yield map data, and start building further layers of information to improve crop management.
This included Terramap scanning across a proportion of the farm before drilling in spring 2021, to map a host of soil properties, from nutritional status and pH to soil type and organic matter content. Since then, the majority of the farm has been Terramapped, revealing some clear variations in soil properties and paving the way for efficiency gains.
The biggest saving so far has been from the Terramap analysis that showed routine applications of lime to correct low soil pH were not necessary, resulting in an instant saving of £5,000-£7,000 on lime applications last year alone. “At current prices, those savings could be worth a third more than that now,” notes farm manager, James Close.
“Previously, we’d have routinely applied lime based on a few soil samples taken by our spreading contractor. Terramap has brought far greater precision to the process, not just with lime, but with seed and fertiliser too.”
Targeting fertiliser use
Indeed, variable rate phosphate and Muriate of Potash (MOP) granular fertiliser was applied to oilseed rape this season (2022 harvest) to help even-up the low levels of soil potassium and phosphorus identified on some lighter areas of fields.
“Base fertiliser rates are calculated from yield map analysis to identify crop potential, and we can tailor what we need to apply, and where to apply it, according to what’s in the soil,” Mr Close says.
Manganese applications are also tailored to individual field and crop requirements, although where needed, this is applied at a flat rate, not variably, he notes.
After purchasing a new Chafer sprayer, the farm did plan to trial variable rate liquid nitrogen applications last spring, however technical issues with the N-Sensor system meant this was not possible. With the problems now resolved, Mr Close plans to try variable rate nitrogen again next spring.
“Our ultimate goal is to hopefully reduce the amount of nitrogen and other fertilisers we need to as little as possible by only applying nutrients exactly where and when they are needed. The cost of all fertiliser has increased considerably this year, so we have to use it as efficiently as possible.”
Understanding soil nutritional and organic matter status also helps to better target slurry and farmyard manure applications, which have been proactively used across the farm, he adds. “Some fields have very high organic matter content, whereas others are lower, so hopefully we can tailor applications better.”
Variable seed rate success
Having the ability to analyse multiple layers of information within Omnia has proven to be a real success for preparing variable seed rate plans too.
Last year, the farm bought a new Vaderstad Rapid 600S drill with variable rate capability, and most of the winter wheat, and winter barley, was sown at variable seed rates last autumn. The approach is due to be used across all crops this autumn.
Soil type, yield maps from previous harvests, weed pressure (notably black-grass), and slug risk assessments, are the main factors that feed into the variable seed rate plans, with rates generally increased where establishment risks or weed pressure is greatest, and eased back slightly on better areas.
Last year’s winter wheat seed rates varied from 144 kg/ha to 203 kg/ha, while those for winter barley ranged from 98 to 110 kg/ha. This equated to around 375-400 seeds/m2 and 225 to 234 seeds/m2 respectively, with the aim of achieving established plant stands of 275-290/m2 in wheat and 180-200 plants/m2 in barley.
“Of course, these figures will vary according to soil type,” Mr Jagger notes. “The aim is to slightly increase the hybrid barley seed rate to compete with grass weeds.”
Mr Close continues: “In total, we’re probably using a similar amount of seed as before, but are placing it much more accurately within the field. It’s not about saving money on seed costs, but allowing us to manage fields more efficiently through the whole season.
“For example, when we’re spraying or fertiliser spreading, we’re not wasting money treating bare patches of ground. Thin areas also let in more light for weeds to grow, which we can hopefully avoid by establishing a more even, competitive, plant stand. Equally, we want to avoid excessively thick areas of crop as plants will be competing against each other [for water, light and nutrients], and may be at increased risk of disease and lodging.”
Mr Close says the Omnia system makes it easy to use the multiple layers of information to formulate variable seed rate plans, and the maps (once converted from kg/ha into seeds/m2) can be seamlessly exported straight to the tractor’s telematics due to the automatic connection between MyJohnDeere and Omnia.
Highlighting less profitable areas
Given the continued pressure on margins, which is being exacerbated by the withdrawal of basic payment support, Mr Close and Mr Bird recognise the role that Omnia’s yield and crop profitability analysis will play in strategic business planning going forward.
The next step is to input actual financial costings information into Omnia and use its cost of production mapping functionality to highlight areas of the farm and individual fields that can consistently deliver a profit, and those that cannot.
“Where underlying problems cannot be rectified, we would consider taking underperforming areas out of production and putting them into some sort of environmental stewardship option,” says Mr Close.
An additional benefit of the Omnia system is the ability it gives both farmer and agronomist to share information quickly, easily and securely.
Mr Jagger uses the Omnia Scout app to log observations, photographs and other information while out in the field, and this information is then uploaded directly to the Field Diary, where it can be accessed by others instantly.
“The Omnia system has allowed a real collaboration between the farm manager, James, and myself as the advisor.”
Farm facts: F.D. Bird & Sons
- 260 ha farm owned by John Bird
- Variable soils ranging from sandy loam to heavy clay
- Cropping includes spring barley, oilseed rape, winter barley, winter wheat, and vining peas
- Cultivation policy: Moved away from plough/ power harrow system two years ago – now based around Cousins Patriot followed by power harrow and drill, or triple-k and drill
- Most of the farm has been Terramapped
- Omnia used to create variable rate plans for seed and fertiliser.