Precision guidance and auto-steer kit cuts cropping inputs for Somerset arable enterprise

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Tim Lindsay-Clark farms 147 hectares at Downhead Manor Farm in Somerset plus various contract farming agreements. With the farm’s typical rotation comprising spring linseed, winter wheat, winter barley and oilseed rape, with spring and winter oats, spring barley, soya and lupins also grown to keep the rotation flexible, the ability to work crops quickly and efficiently is key to the success of his business.

“Our soils, for the most part, are a mixture of 50-60% clay, 20-30% silt and 10-20% sand,” Tim explains. “For two decades the land was farmed under a scratch tillage strategy, but since 2006 we’ve re-set the farmed area by using a one-pass sub-soiler and seeding box system to establish oilseed rape. Everything has now been sub-soiled once and we now operate a zero-till system.”

Winter drilling at Downhead Farm traditionally starts on 10th October and continues until mid-November. “That’s a late window for us to be working clay soils,” Tim continues, “but we’ve equipped ourselves with the right machinery to enable us to work quickly and effectively. If conditions turn against us we can switch to a spring cropping strategy instead.”

In order to improve the speed and accuracy of cropping operations, Tim has invested in a selection of guidance systems. “Our first foray into precision farming was in 2006 when we installed a basic GPS system and used a free satellite signal to guide our Bateman RB15 sprayer,” he describes.

“When we bought the RB15 second-hand it didn’t have any bout markers so we needed a system which would help to minimise misses and over-sprays. At the time a set of bout markers was £1100 while a cheap GPS system was £800. We opted for the latter and it instantly made life easier.”

The satellite-based system was used for spray, drill, cultivator and fertiliser spreading duties, with Tim and tractor operator, Nic Millard, soon realising its ability to save time. “With such a late, narrow and unpredictable window to complete our autumn drillings, we can’t afford to waste any time,” Tim explains. “It made sense to invest in additional technology to equip each tractor as well as the sprayer, but I didn’t want to waste money on kit that couldn’t be upgraded at a later date.”

The farm’s original guidance system was subsequently upgraded and added to by installing a Topcon receiver to the autosteer ready Fendt 939 tractor, using the free Egnos signal through the Varioterminal on the tractor.

After one full season with the Topcon Egnos receiver, Tim installed an X30 console, in order to access full section control and variable rate application of seed and fertiliser.

After another full season, the 939’s X30 was complimented with an RTK receiver module running on NTRIP, and a Topcon AES-250 steering system was added to the RB15, running on Egnos, enabling full autosteer, section control and variable rate for an otherwise very basic sprayer. AES-250 looms were also installed to the Clark’s Lexion 540 combine and Fendt 820 tractor, so that the AES-250 system could be easily and quickly swapped between vehicles.

The following season, the RTK upgrade was completed by installing an RTK base station and adding an RTK module to the AES-250 system that is shared by the sprayer, combine and second tractor, thereby enabling all drilling, fertilisation, spraying and combining operations to be carried out to an accuracy of plus or minus 10mm. A second electric steering wheel, which remains on the combine during harvest and transferred to the Fendt 820 at other times of the year, was also purchased. An Apollo ECU was also installed to give the sprayer more than 10 sections of control.

2017 has seen the business grow, and as a result, the RB15 has been upgraded to a second hand RB35. “Since the Topcon kit is so easy to install and remove, we have been able to move everything across to the the new sprayer,” Tim adds. “We’ve also upgraded the spray pack on the RB35 to a CANbus line controller that ties in nicely with the Apollo ECU enabling us to have full individual nozzle control for all 72 nozzles.”

By Tim’s reckoning, the RTK systems have made drilling, fertilising and spraying operations 5% more productive. “By eliminating overlaps and enabling Nic to work longer hours, our field-based operations are easier and quicker and we’re using less seed, chemical, fertiliser and diesel. We can also spray after dark to take advantage of favourable weather conditions.”

Tim also estimates that the combine now operates 20% more efficiently. “We originally used a 22ft header but recently upgraded to a 25ft unit. The extra width makes it difficult to see the edge of the reel which meant the combine was consistently undercutting on each pass. With the RTK auto-steer kit installed, the header is now working to maximum capacity resulting in a higher hourly output and reduced harvesting costs.”

The Topcon equipment has also improved data management at Downhead Manor: “Previously we had assumed one particular field on the farm was 18.2 ha because that was the size it had always been,” Tim explains. “It was a real eye opener to realise its actual area, as measured by RTK, is only 17.22 ha. It’s a similar story across the farm, especially for smaller, more awkwardly shaped fields. With accurate data, we can now manage and work each plot more efficiently.”

Ovearall, Tim estimates that he has reduced his input costs by approximately £25 per hectare for winter rape. “Put another way, that’s a 5% reduction in fertiliser, seed and chemical costs. In total we’ve reduced our input costs by more than £10,000 per year.

“When you go through the figures, the investment into precision equipment is a no-brainer. But it’s the intangible benefits which really make the difference. The ability to drill and combine crops quickly and efficiently during periods of catchy weather, or to be able to spray in low-light levels makes our farming year much more enjoyable.”

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