Options for lifting the productivity of UK arable production were under the spotlight at ProCam’s recent spring conference with greater use of data to fine-tune management, field operations and marketing opportunities very much at their heart. Arable crop production is heading to a future where information of growers’ individual circumstances and objectives combined with bigger picture data from a variety of sources will lift crop production to new levels of efficiency.

The journey of production technology from initial mechanisation through precision and smart farming is now heading rapidly to integrated technologies set to offer ‘chain optimisation’ very soon in the future, believes Rabobank senior analyst Harry Smit. The intuitive part of farming will inevitably become less important in the years ahead, he told delegates at ProCam’s spring conference.

“Decisions will become based around facts to a much greater degree than currently as time progresses and it is the growing aggregation and integration of data that will allow this to happen. The end result will be superior levels of knowledge leveraged over far bigger areas with the practice of growing crops becoming much more science-oriented and based on repeatable decisions and outcomes.

As such, day-to-day farming will become more automated with three steps likely to lead to this becoming more prevalent, Greater precision is the first step, and were pretty much there with systems that prevent spraying overlap and allow us to use straight lines in our fieldwork. The next one is becoming more informed through more accurate measurements to aid better decisions. Finally, we will have systems that work automatically integrating local information and macro data to make real time operational decisions and address in-field variability without any user interventions.

There are sizeable issues to address within this model, not least of which is who owned the data and which organisation would be the ‘integrator’ of all these technologies. There is a strong argument for a farmer-owned organisation being the integrating body for this all encompassing ‘farming solution’ but it could easily be input retailers, agronomists, input manufacturers or end-market buyers looking to produce consistent and known output. At the end of the day, producers will benefit from greater cost efficiency such technology will inevitably bring and could achieve significant advantages from strategic co-operation throughout the food supply chain. Alternatively, they could use it to develop their own sales channels with a view to marketing better quality products at higher prices.”

ProCam head of crop production Nick Myers said use of information and knowledge generated through the company’s 4Cast arable database was already pointing the way to more consistent ways to improve production efficiency. For example, looking at production statistics for 2015 highlighted the importance of aiming for high yields in the future and using inputs wisely, he explained.

“Analysis of ProCam’s 4Cast database for the 2015 harvest years shows the top quartile of customers produced a profit despite the current low grain prices whilst the average UK grower struggled to break even. The top 25% of customers in 4Cast produced around 2.5t/ha more then the Defra national average of 8.8 t/ha for 2015. Our average of 10.0t/ha for the year was 1.2t/ha more than the national average, too. Critically, those higher producers had variable costs of around £40-50/tonne compared to nearer £70/tonne for the average grower. Last year, the top 25% wheat growers would be producing gross margins around £850-900/ha whilst the average would be closer to £600/ha.

Growers, therefore, needed to prioritise reducing costs per tonne of production rather than just cutting back on inputs across the board. The higher the yield, the more tonnes there are to carry their share of the costs and the higher the overall margin. With yields so critical to profitability in 2016, growers needed to re-evaluate any decisions that could potentially affect these. ProCam trials have shown a 3.5 to 4.0 t/ha benefit from full fungicide programmes in high disease risk years producing a margin over input costs of between £300 – 400/ha. Even in lower disease risk years like 2015 the yield responses were still around 2.5t/ha over untreated. This isn’t just from controlling diseases, fungicides also influence plant physiology allowing them to take up water better, use nutrition more effectively and stay greener for longer.”

2016’s well established crops looked to have good potential and the appropriate level of inputs was now required to realise this. Growers need to focus on managing disease but also ensure they keep crops growing through appropriate nutrition – micro and macro – and promoting rooting to make sure crops remain standing. According to Rothamsted research scientist Dr. Nichola Hawkins careful management of fungicides to slow down development of resistance in key diseases like Septoria would be one of the key priorities for growers in the future. The azoles as a group have lasted well over the last 30 years but we are now seeing a reduction in eradicant activity. Timing is crucial to get the most effectiveness from their remaining protectant activity and full dose rates are needed to control the least sensitive strains.

“The future was less clear for SDHIs, lab results showed the potential for high resistance risk and we have just reported a less-sensitive isolate from one field site. We are monitoring the situation closely, and urge growers to follow resistance management guidelines, using a maximum of two SDHIs per season and always with an effective mixing partner.”