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Future Farming in Practice at the Helix Project – Agronomist & Arable Farmer – Matt Ward, Neil Watson

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1742019 12936The requirement for growers to be more transparent and to justify their practices will only increase, requiring resource and a new management approach – that was the core message from Hutchinsons Managing Director Andrew McShane to a group of visitors to the Hutchinsons Helix Project in June.

The Helix Project is a farm-scale research project looking at how new technologies can improve farm productivity, profitability and efficiency, and is being hosted courtesy of Andrew and William Pitts at JW Pitts & Sons in Northamptonshire.  The project will act as a central research hub, bringing together all aspects of crop production through to field data and input measurement.

“Profitable and sustainable farming is becoming intrinsically tied up with the use of new technologies – be they in the form of machinery, chemistry or genetic solutions and, as an industry, we are going to be asked how we can justify the use of these technologies on farm,” said Mr McShane.

Project Sustainability

Services Manager Matt Ward said Hutchinsons is using the project to advance the concept of an integrated farm management approach.

“As the environment and biodiversity move higher up the political agenda we need to start looking now at how growers can deliver this within an integrated farm management system,” he said. “The environment plan goals include farms having thriving plants and wildlife and using natural resources more sustainably and efficiently.”

At the Helix project, Hutchinsons are working with PhD student Sarah Barnsley to look at how pollinator resources can be increased. The research aims to identify a method for mapping pollinator resources that are already on-farm.

Ms Barnsley explained: “This way we can see what is already available so that we know where to target improvements, and we can monitor these as we go along. At the Helix Farm we are looking at how we can use remotely sensed aerial imagery to do this, which, to date, has always been done manually. This should make it easier to cover larger areas, more quickly.”

At a later stage, the methods developed for detecting different pollinator-suitable flower species can be integrated into Omnia. She added: “From there, the potential exists to combine the pollinator and wildlife resource layers with Omnia's field performance maps.

“What this allows us to do is to identify the most sensible areas to convert to habitat consisting for example, of those areas of poor productivity and where there are large gaps in the resources needed to support a whole pollinator community."

The initial rounds of aerial imagery have already been obtained, and ground truthing of the different flower species has been carried out within the margins. This involved assessing what individual flowers were on the ground at precise locations so that they could be matched up to the images, she explained.

“Once all the data is gathered, analysis will begin this autumn," she said. “This will rely on the fact that everything that we see around us reflects or absorbs different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation.

“The unique pattern of reflected wavelengths for each object is called its spectral signature and this is unique for each flower species.

“Ultimately, the aim is to determine whether high resolution aerial imagery can be used to accurately detect flowering species across the season that are rich in pollen and nectar needed by a pollinator community.

“We would be able to monitor what is flowering at different times of year and if we needed to grow additional species to fill any gaps - such as in the pollinator hungry months of March, August and September."

Project Optimising Economic Output

Headed up by Hutchinsons Technical Support Manager Neil Watson, this project is looking at how technology can be used to improve economic output from a farm and field-scale basis.

Through the project, Hutchinsons aims to improve evaluation of yield and cost of production and make assessing the parameters of yield more easy to help make decisions about input management.

Mr Watson said: “Yield maps were the first formal measurement we had of crop variability across a field. Now we are able to take this further, using year-on-year data to build up a picture within Omnia, which allows us to identify areas that yield consistently well or poorly. This allows us to make management decisions such as taking land out of production or incorporating this information within a variable rate drilling plan."

The Helix project is asking whether this is the correct approach.

He added: “Would it be better, for example, to look at farming more closely to soil zones and managing the crop potential that equates to that zone? This would include managing seed rates by the zone's potential rather then just trying to adjust them to ensure an even plant establishment across the entire field.

“We could look at using technology to improve our understanding of how crops put on biomass in the season to reach a particular yield. This could be in the form of much more regular biomass pictures - currently we only use NDVI measurements that are usually taken on a monthly basis.”

Other projects being carried out at Helix are 'project nutrition', which is looking at how to best optimise inputs in line with sustainability; a system for non-invasive tissue analysis to make decisions on plant health; and 'project predict & justify', an improved system for barley yellow dwarf virus forecasting.