The time taken to bring in the harvest may be decreasing but the data it produces is increasing and becoming more meaningful. With more combine harvesters than ever measuring yield it is becoming possible to accurately compare the inputs with the outcome. This will provide an indication of the economic return on a field-by-field basis.
The missing factor is ‘potential’ – knowing how much it would be possible to gain from a piece of land if all the variables were optimised – and this is becoming a strong theme for Agri-Tech Week.
Could do better
Data from ADAS suggests that the maximum theoretical yield of a winter wheat crop, for example, is 18 tonnes/ha, under ideal conditions of light, temperature, crop density and availability of water and nutrients. Similarly, it estimates the pea yield could potentially be more than 10 tonnes/ha, despite the recent, rather dismal results which show that on-farm yields can vary from between 1 to 7 tonnes/ha.
This gap between yield and potential is of course the opportunity that technology is aiming to address.
The opportunity is being understood
Greater understanding of how to increase access to resources by the plant is perhaps one of the most exciting developments in recent years. We now recognise that microbial activity is key to unlocking the nutrients already present in the soil and that nurturing these mini-beasts is as important as feeding the crop. To support this, techniques for soil sampling and mapping need to be improved, and this was one of the issues discussed at our recent Sustainable Intensification meeting.
The use of Lidar for mapping is one technology that is showing promise, particularly in the Broads for estimating where runoff will occur. Nitrogen leaching is a problem both for farmers and water management. Studies by AHDB have shown that nitrogen levels can vary metre by metre across a field, so estimating the optimum level is difficult. This is further complicated by the fact that the presence of nitrogen does not mean that it is in a form that is available to the plant.
Insights from across the pond
Our keynote speaker at REAP, Gary Zimmer, has introduced a systematic approach to sampling both soils and plants on the farms he has advised in the US. He does this to show the nutrient levels in the soil and the amount of nutrient that the plant is absorbing. He believes that this has revealed the elements that are essential for crop performance and advocates that a distinction is made between the need for ‘soil correctives’ – which are used to get the soil into order – and plant feeds – which are made at key growth stages.
We are looking forward to comparing his experiences in the USA to our practices in the UK.
Scientific agenda provides new strategies
This theme of maximising potential will also be discussed by plant scientists at REAP – the need to improve the plant canopy cover to maximise photosynthesis has been the subject of intensive research. Different ways to achieve this through breeding, alternative approaches to pest control and intercropping are some of the ideas under discussion.
Back on the farm
More down to earth will be the ‘Shiny kit and smart drivers’ event on Thursday 10th, which will feature a workshop by machinery specialists from Ben Burgess and John Deere designed to help ensure farmers and growers are getting the most out of their machinery.
Pulse raising finish
However good the information available there is still the magic element of experience. We asked independent agronomist Peter Riley, James Wallace of Dalton Seeds and and specialists in legumes at ADAS, James Hutton Institute, John Innes Centre, NIAB, PGRO and Rothamsted Research what they thought about this year’s variability in the pea and bean harvest. They said it was not just conditions but also the knowledge of the farmer that could account for the difference.
At our ‘Raising the Pulse’ event on Friday 11th ADAS will be presenting the results of a trial they have been conducting that compares actual yield achieved with a theoretical model of yield potential. Together, we will be brainstorming how to use this information, and that of the other specialists, to gain a consistent yield of 10 tonnes/ha. Our experts are confident that with the support of the best producers it can be done …
One of the secrets to reaching potential is to improve timing – just-in-time to catch disease, at the right time to boost crop quality, or extending growing time to maximise access to resources. So Agri-Tech Week, at the pivotal moment in the agricultural calendar, is perfectly timed to help you maximise your potential!