“The soil is our factory. It’s the medium that we need for growing crops and it is essential to have that in the best possible order.” Nick Bumford is manager of Guiting Manor Farms, in the Cotswolds and he is clear that the most valuable asset on the farm needs attentive and thorough care.
Although in the lowlands, Guiting is a hill farm with land between 600 and 1000ft above sea level. Of the 3000 acres Nick farms, around 2500 are arable. The land is prone to drought with variable depth soils over a limestone bedrock. “If you don’t measure the soil you can’t manage it and being able to get more from your soil is definitely the best way forward,” he says.
It was this approach that first led Nick to investigate the benefits of precision crop production in the 1990s. “We tried a few things but we could never quite see how it all fitted together. At that stage there was still some research needed to improve the hardware and software and to get things working more smoothly together.”
He first fully committed and embraced precision crop production when he began to work with SOYL in 2011.
“We began by getting every single arable field scanned and nutrient tested to give base values for the farm and highlight which areas were most in need of attention.” From that point Nick began variable rate nutrient applications and using satellite technology to identify variation in the crop canopy. He now also uses variable rate seed.
Substantial volatility in the cost of inputs, such as P&K and nitrogen, over the last five years, has concentrated the mind says Nick. “It has become more important than ever not to waste any product, while still ensuring that all the crops are well fed.” The advantage of doing that spatially rather than on a whole field basis means that Nick not only has tight control of the amount of product he is using, but that he is simultaneously able to optimise the field average and improve some of the poorer areas of the field.
“If we acknowledge that the good parts of the field generally perform to a satisfactory, or better than satisfactory level, then all that the poorer areas do is erode your yield average. By manipulating those less productive areas we have increased our overall average.”
"The backup that we’ve had from the SOYL team has been very good indeed."
And the results from doing this have been overwhelmingly positive. “We’re getting much more even establishment now, especially in the areas where historically it has been much more difficult to get a crop going. And the combination of using variable rate seed and variable rate nitrogen is giving us crops that are much more even and uniform.”
This improved crop establishment also has the knock on benefit of reducing disease pressure as there is increased competition from the crop. At harvest time the increased consistency across the field improves operations at one of the busiest times of year.
It's not just the technology that's important to Nick, but the people. “The backup that we’ve had from the SOYL team has been very good indeed. We can make requests for changes to inputs, and they are available to download straight to the tractor with the SOYL-OPTI. We are starting to embrace the MySOYL website, doing a bit more on our own, but so far we have generally relied on the SOYL staff to do it for us and we enjoy that support.”
“For growers thinking about taking their first steps into precision crop production, I would say start by doing the base audits so that you know where you are starting from. Also have a look at how easy it might be to automate your seed and fertiliser with a SOYL-OPTI box. They’re not expensive and you don’t have to save very much fertiliser before it pays for itself. From there move to the variable P&K. That, along with lime, magnesium and so on is a no-brainer for me, because you can immediately see the cost saving benefits at the same time as smoothing out the PK indices, which inherently will benefit your crop.”