Precision tools here to stay - so get using them

Article from the Agronomist & Arable Farmer

Precision farming is here to stay says Agrovista’s Lewis McKerrow, whether it’s something as simple as a tractor guidance box in the tractor cab, the more progressive variable application of inputs or full-scale analysis of everything – from soil through to final crop yield.

He says that the buzzword to describe new world of information over recent years has been ‘big data’; how we manager it and sift through the often voluminous datasets coming from machines and gadgets to find out what is useful and what isn’t.  Alongside this, exciting progress is coming from the technology outside agriculture that is becoming smarter and faster and being introduced into the world of farming.

“For example, the latest internet browsers have come a long way in improving how we access and use data, with functionality like ‘drag and drop’ coming into web environments.”

He acknowledges that some farmers will be limited in the short term because of broadband speeds, but says that it is inevitable that the future of computing will be via the internet.

“The big drawback to web-based systems is that you have to have an internet connection of at least 1MB download speed to use them without losing the will to live!  Really, users need 305MB for comfortable use of a web-based tool; while those with 10MB+ connections will have totally seamless access to all web services,” he explains.

Launch of Axis

Earlier this year Agrovista launched Axis, its own agronomy, disease prediction and field-mapping platform.  It is a fully web-based platform.  The vision for the system is that it will synchronise the disparate data sources that most farmers have into one system, alleviating some of the ‘big data’ headaches currently experienced on-farm.

“When we started developing Axis we sought a lot of user feedback on the current systems on the market, and while we found that they can be viewed as very good, many were criticised for being very complex to set up and also to get the best out of the data generated.”

Mr McKerrow believes this team have made a significant stride forward in making Axis a simple to sue but powerful precision data handling tool with a modern user interface (UI).

“Many of the data sets that we look at in the growing season allow us to react to a situation and try to fix it using the experience we have of the farm and as agronomists,” Mr McKerrow explains.

“For example, there may be an uneconomical yield gain from applying nitrogen to a particular soil zone based on soil type, aspect, potash status, organic matter level and available soil moisture, once you factor in the cost per kg of N, diesel price, and estimated grain price.”

He suggests that Axis is very simple to use.  “The only parts to ‘install’ on the computer are for synchronising with legacy programmes and moving complex file structures such as yield data up to the web,” he explains.

Commenting on investing in a web platform, he does recognise that there are challenges associated with bandwidth, but is adamant that it will be the right decision in the long run.

“From a development point of view it is a double-edged sword; testing new functionality and making it live to the end user is very simple without the burden of doing software updates and checking version numbers.  However, browser compatibility between the big market players such as Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Firefox and Safari can vary significantly.  Just because something works and looks good in one, doesn’t necessarily mean it will in the rest.”

This has called for rigorous testing of Axis on all the browers formats to ensure that the end user gets a similar experience whatever internet browser they use; it also has to work on touch screens.

He forcefully adds that with Axis, Agrovista means business in the ‘big data’ world.

“We aren’t standing still now that Axis is live.  Our next significant release to the market, later this year, will be the advanced data tool for our current Axis MapIT Pro platform.”

He claims that on a normal connection speed and without any prior setup the new system can import data such as a biomass scan from an Isaria crop sensor, process this, turn it into mapped field zones, translate this into a variable rate seed map, and download it into a ‘shape-file’ ready to go into a machine controller in less than a minute.

“This exceptionally powerful data handling tool within Axis will be available on a subscription basis to growers who want to use it themselves; or Agrovista will offer a service to input and manage the data on the grower’s behalf,” he notes.

The development is this latest tool comes from Agrovista’s Plansystems technology department, a business that has been making large investment in technology over the last three years.

Adding a further comment, Mr McKerrow says the company recognises the challenges growers face and sees the enduring role of the agronomist being as important as ever on farm.

“As a company, we aren’t purely technology focused – our development work extends to pioneering work with cover crops, companion plants, no-till, as well as soil health testing, all of which demonstrates that we really are looking at farming in its broadest sense and we’re doing things a whole lot differently than we were five years ago; precision farming is just another part of this progress.”

Five to 10 years down the line Mr McKerrow says that he sees the agronomist as having a much bigger role in analysing data and manipulating prescriptions accordingly.

“Tools such as the Axis MapIT Pro will allow s to keep pace with what farmers will come to expect from their advisers.”

Drones

He adds that the use of drones will inevitably increase and that the MapIT Pro roadmap will enable farmers to process and manage the imagery that drones generate.

“Companies like ourselves are operating drones and more farmers now have their own; tools like Axis need to reflect on-farm progress like this.”

His final point is very clear – in this world of precision technologies, human interaction is still vital.  “Despite all this technology there is still plenty of room for the human touch.  I see all of these new options just as evolutions to the tools we have in the tool chest.  In agriculture we have always needed tools, some blunt, some precise, we now just need to learn how and when to use each one.”

 

14 April 2015

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