If you’re a tractor spotter, in the same way as people are train spotters, or if you simply take an interest in what’s new you may have noticed over the last ten years an attachment that fits to the roof of farm equipment.
It’s variably called an N Sensor or an optical sensor, dependent partly on the manufacturing company involved, and is a tool for assessing how much, or indeed how little, fertiliser should be applied.
The aim of these sensors is to meet crop requirements with high precision to maximise yields and reduce negative environmental effects.
Precision farming has become a separate subject as well as a new rural catchphrase in recent times and includes far more than sensors. It also covers satellite mapping, soil analysis and the utilisation of other fast-developing technology to improve farm performance including applications for smart phones that can be downloaded for free relating to field management.
Just how much it can make for better farm management and in so doing add to the bottom line profitability on farm has not yet been proved adequately enough for the lion’s share of UK agriculture to take it on board, but Davina Fillingham, associate partner with Stephenson’s at Murton, believes it is where the future lies.
Davina, who admits to having preferred farm toys over Barbie dolls as a child and whose parents have a small farm in Watton near Driffield, is one of the current crop of Nuffield farming scholars who are charged with taking on a subject and conducting research around the world. She was awarded the scholarship in October last year and so far her globetrotting has seen her travel to Canada, Spain and France with a four-week trip to Australia planned next month.
“The Nuffield Farming Scholarship was set up because it was perceived that travel broadens the mind.
“The scholarship provides a contribution towards travelling expenses but inevitably given the amount I want to see and to get the maximum out of my research it means I’m having to put in my own funding too.
“So far I have learned that the possibilities for precision farming technologies are vast, but the biggest problem generally is managing the data that becomes available.”
But isn’t the technology that is fitted to a sprayer or tractor simply about the short-term result of what needs applying in that field on that day?
“That short-term result is fine, but what we’re looking for is a management system where every farm can integrate all of the information to produce a decision tool that can be used to look and analyse further the farmland for the future. It’s such a big subject. One of the problems is that people are getting hold of information that just gets put into a filing cabinet and never gets looked at again.”
The cost of the equipment also plays a large factor in the uptake on farms
“People using precision farming tend to be a younger generation and generally those who are farming over 1,000 acres. Cost means that the technology is not for everyone but that may not be the case for too much longer.
“The government recently produced its Agritech Strategy. It clearly recognises the benefits of precision farming and wants the UK to be leaders.
“Those farmers who I have spoken with who are already using technology can see the cost savings and realise that environmentally they are doing a good thing by not putting excessive amounts of fertiliser where it is not required.
“There are those who believe their farming eyes are just as good as an N Sensor. But if you start talking about profit maps using soil analysis, nutrients, precision fertiliser application and yield maps everything starts to become a lot more interesting and immediate for all farmers.”
Profile: Davina Fillingham
Davina specializes in land and estate management, agribusiness, environmental stewardship and the single payment scheme. She is also an auctioneer. She is a member of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers. At the family home she has a flock of 30 pure-bred Lleyns. She must produce a paper by May 2014 and present her final submission at the Nuffield Farming Conference in November 2014.