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Crops monitors and drones – CPM – Oliver Wood

Most of us will have an old phone sitting in a drawer somewhere. No camera, certainly no mobile data connection, and if you’ve had it for a really long time,...

So it’s perhaps rather mind-boggling to think that these are still around at a time where we now have tiny little devices flying through the sky, telling us everything we need to know about our crops.

Precision farming is now standard practice on many farms, with growers able to measure exactly what’s happening in a field at any given moment thanks to the rapid development and accessibility of crop monitors and drones.

This, combined with expert support from agronomists, is widely accepted to be driving better decision making and more efficient and cost-effective input decisions.

But in a fast-moving sector, keeping up with the latest developments can be slightly daunting.

To guide growers thinking about investing in crop monitors or drones, CPM has delved deeper into the detail of some of the key products on the market.

Omnia Plant Vision

With new updates expected later this spring, Omnia’s Plant Vision claims to be a cost-effective and reliable way to gather crop biomass data, explains Oliver Wood, Hutchinson precision service manager. “Measuring the green area index of a field allows growers to take real time measurements of the canopy during the crop’s life.

“Known as remote sensing, this measurement relies on the reflection of light from the leaf surface and specialist machinery has been developed around this concept that measures crop reflectance at different levels.

“However, to date this capability for real-time remote sensing has often been compromised due to unreliable satellite imaging, and the high cost of the specialist sensor equipment.

“Real time measurements of crop biomass are notoriously unreliable as there are so many factors that can affect the readings – crop layers, growth stage, the angle of the sun for example all have an effect – so you could be paying an awful lot of money for technology that is not really working.”

As a solution to this, Omnia’s Plant Vision sensor system is based on NDVI reflectance sensors, explains Oliver. “Data collected through Plant Vision correlates strongly to the Leaf Area Index and Green Area Index and is the same as NDVI data collected from other sensor systems or satellites.

“This data can then be run to create shapes that represent differences in green area index across a field, from which biomass maps can be developed and used in the Omnia Precision Agronomy system.

“If data has already been collected through another system, that can also be brought in and used within Omnia.”

However, the true value of Plant Vision is the ability to use the biomass information in conjunction with other field characteristics to explain or verify yield potential through Omnia, he adds.

Using the data in this way can help to answer the question of whether or not to increase inputs on a poor or high-performing area of a field. “It’s not about aiming for an even crop, it’s about managing the agronomy of particular areas of the field that require a more prescriptive approach to push for optimum yield potential.

“For example, at the beginning of the season, regular biomass measurements will allow the user to look at how the crop has tillered and where this is poor it may need additional early nitrogen. Later in the season the better performing areas of the crop may need pushing and this justifies more nitrogen.”

The system can be mounted to any machine, but commonly it’s used on a sprayer, he adds. “A typical installation would be four or six sensors mounted to the sprayer boom and a simple controller in the cab. “Plant Vision is incredibly accurate as it can collect measurements each time the sprayer passes through the field during the season -– there’s no need for expensive machinery or extra passes through the field- and it allows the farmer to decide when they want to collect the data.”

Top tips for agri-tech investment

Farmers’ developing interest in agri-tech was clearly demonstrated in a survey conducted by NFU Mutual in December last year, which revealed that 32% of respondents said they were most intrigued by robotic and data agri-tech developments; closely followed by drones (30%) and autonomous tractors (24%).

“Our research shows that many farmers are open to investing in agri-tech – but are holding back because of concerns about the risks involved, whether they will choose the right systems, and that new tech will prove durable in farm conditions,” explains Fang Wang, NFU Mutual business analyst.

To help growers overcome these barriers, NFU Mutual have offered some top tips for farmers planning agri-tech investments:

Start by reviewing the farm’s strategy and then identify how technology and using detailed data could help you achieve your goals.

Explore technology systems that integrate not only the farm’s activities but also its supply chain, creating opportunities for farmers, food processors and retailers to work together.

Keep up to date with developments and ensure you have the management skills to adopt technology and successfully master the opportunities available from data-based farming.

Consider working with other farms, as co-operation can help achieve economies of scale both in the use of new technology and the adoption of a farmer-friendly supply chain.

Recognise its value and be very careful who you share it with.

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