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The Role of Precision Technology in Profitable Farming - Oliver Wood - Agronomist & Arable Farmer

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Why data analysis is crucial to making the best agronomic decisions.

With the practical implications of Brexit still to be seen, the possibility of farming without subsidies means farmers need to be realistic about their costings and be as efficient as possible, according to John Pelham, of agriculture consultancy Andersons.

"Business is a mosaic of profit and loss. If farmers aren't already concerned about their cost of production, they will soon need to be," he explains.

"The subsidy system has long been an integral part of profits and has meant farmers haven't needed to look at their cost of production. "Without subsidies, the reality is that there is very little profit for growing crops in the UK - unless businesses make improvements, many will go into loss.”

Relentless benchmarking and budgeting are vital to highlight areas for improving farm performance and therefore maintaining future profitability, he says.

"Unless you measure it, you can't manage it. The focus needs to be on those things farmers do have control of or can influence," Mr Pelham adds.

So, what is driving this inefficiency? It all comes down to the layout of the field, he says. "The main problem growers face in the UK is that they are usually working with small, irregularly shaped fields," Mr Pelham explains. "Often, areas of lesser performance are the edge of fields. Farmers need to understand where these underperforming areas are."

Oliver wood, Hutchinsons precision technology manager, points out that the starting point should be to accurately measure production costs, including both variable costs and fixed operational costs (such as machinery or labour), in order to know the true cost of production on a per tonne or hectare basis. From this, decisions about future strategy can be made.

"Gross margin analysis accounts for less than half of overall growing costs, so you need to take everything into account," he says.

"Our Omnia precision farming service allows growers and agronomists to analyse multiple layers of field data - including yield maps - to inform decisions."

While generating yield maps is essentially data gathering, what is really valuable is how they are interpreted in conjunction with other factors, he adds.

With the Omnia yield performance mapping capability, it's possible for growers and agronomists to identify and map areas of fields by categorising them in terms of the consistency of performance.

"In this way, management decisions can be based on this sub-field information; it may be that a higher yielding area of the field has shown up to be potentially inconsistent, so it may not be worth pushing - whereas if another area delivers an average yield and is potentially consistent, it could be worth investing in," Mr Wood adds.

Combining financial information with yield map analysis is an excellent way to start assessing overall productivity at field level, identify inconsistencies and problem areas to tackle, he says.

Within Omnia, growers are able to create average cost of production information by crop, market outlet, variety or by field, using known or predicted costs, with known or predicted yields.

Mr Wood says: "There can be significant variations in actual production costs within fields when examined on a tonnage basis."

Omnia analysis of one winter wheat crop put the average total cost of production at £995/ha, equivalent to £134/t, although this ranged from £95/t on the highest yielding areas (hitting around 12t/ha) to £221/t on the worst parts of the field (where yields were as low as 3t/ha).

"We need to understand why areas are costing more than the cost of production and make a plan as to how farmers and agronomists can work together to change that."