What to do with last year’s harvest data?

Growers are increasingly awash with historical data from combine-generated yield maps. In this article, Ben Hatton outlines how growers can utilise this data to make meaningful decisions.

What proportion of arable growers have access to on-combine yield mapping, how has that changed in the past five to ten years, and what proportion, in your view, make best use of the information it creates?

It is now standard practise for all manufacturers combines shipped in the UK to have a yield monitor controller box in the cab which has not always been the case. In addition, there are a number of retro-fit options making yield mapping accessible to a larger audience.

Yield mapping is becoming far more common place and I believe, as guidance has almost become a ‘standard’ practice, so yield mapping is gaining a similar level of acceptance. However, there is a large gap between combines fitted with yield monitors and yield data that is brought into the office and interrogated. If it is being used, I would say it is a small proportion of users that are doing this analysis themselves – most is being done for them by a service provider. For many though, this information is still just used to confirm their thoughts on the yield of their field. However, this is changing with more and more growers looking to use this valuable data source to support on farm decisions.

What can such maps tell growers, and over how many seasons do they need to be created to ensure that what they show is an accurate overall picture of a field?

With all data analysis the more you have the better and if you have the ability to look back over multiple years of yield maps then this will be key to seeing that your implemented management practises are giving you the desired results. Even with only a single year’s yield data much can be learnt and used to inform the customer going forward.

The maps can give as a good indication of what a specific point in a field produced ideally over several years. There is a need to be mindful that some ‘low yields’ may just be down to environmental or other localised conditions in any given year and may not reflect the field fairly just as a snapshot. 5 years is a good base to start building normalised yield variation maps in Gatekeeper, for example.

Where is the greatest scope for adjusting inputs based on yield maps, and how should growers decide what to do, for example about future seed rates and fertiliser applications?

Million dollar question and I don’t believe there is one answer. This is where Growers must start with some evidence, such as the yield data, sit down and try to draw some conclusions or make further investigation – is the low yielding area on the field due to factors that can be changed?

If it is nutrient, compaction type of problem then yes, quite possibly. If it is the nature of the soil type in that region, for example, then possibly adjusting inputs is not going to make that much difference. The grower must have a strategy in mind and use the agronomic advice from their agronomist/advisor to support their approach. Returning applied data from variable applications (if deemed necessary) is also useful to provide evidence to determine the legitimacy of the chosen strategy.

What else can yield maps be used for – can they realistically guide future cultivations and drainage operations?

No one piece of data will ever give you a clear guide to a future application in isolation but it should be used to reinforce what you already suspect is happening or required to happen and should certainly clarify the extent of a problem and how wide spread it may be.

The more data you would put in spatially the more data and useful information you will be able to get out specially. Running field margin maps for example I was with a client a few months ago that had been approached about putting solar panels in the fields. What fields do we make the best money on, what fields could we lease out and make extra on. Yield maps could even be used to support other decisions such as the optimum machine or implement for their circumstances.

How important, or otherwise, is it to back yield maps with other field survey information, for example soil analysis, to guide decisions and why?

It is very important to combine yield with other sources of information as reliance on one data source may mask or hide certain issues in the field. Precision farming data should be used in conjunction with agronomic and local knowledge.

What progress has been made towards ensuring that yield map information in a particular file format can be easily transferred to other machines to act upon, and what more may need to be done?

This can be a challenge but great progress has been and continues to be made. Gatekeeper has always been at the forefront of compatibility and can handle the majority of data file formats to make growers lives easier. This removes the integration burden for many growers ensuring that key data such as field lists and boundaries can be exchanged between machines.

For the future, AgGateways ‘Adapt’ framework will be key to bring a multitude of data sources under one file format and to enhance compatibility.

What is the least a grower starting from scratch would need to spend to adopt an input system based on yield maps, what could be the return, and how long might it take for results to become apparent?

The financial investment a grower will need to make will depend on a number of variables and depends on the system and their needs. This will be minimal when compared to the cost of not using this valuable data to support their decisions. The real spend is in time. Without a clear strategy, time will be wasted and thus any financial input will not yield a return on investment. This will also have a bearing on the timeliness on the results.

The returns for growers that adopt a variable input system based on yields will not just be the obviously monetary benefits of reduced inputs, less fuel and maintenance on the machines and reduced operator time but also environmental benefits on the soil and wildlife.

Equally the adoption of much of the technology used in a precision farming increases farming safety with GPS and Autosteer reducing drive fatigue over the long hours worked at critical times of year.

Ben Hatton studied Countryside Management at Riseholme in Lincoln, before working as a grant scheme applicator. For the last 9 years, Ben has worked for Farmplan, focusing on the arable market and Gatekeeper product portfolio. Today, Ben manages many of Farmplan’s key accounts, including some of the UK’s largest agronomy firms, service providers and dealerships.

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