12:00 14 May 2022
A partnership between five leading agricultural companies in Norfolk is analyzing a torrent of shared data in a bid to optimize increasingly costly field operations.
Catalyst Farming is a collaboration between Holkham Farming Company and Holkham Emerald near Wells, NE Salmon in Great Fransham near Dereham, Raynham Farms near Fakenham and Salle Farms near Reepham.
The group is “harnessing the power of data” to inform decision-making on a combined landholding totaling 7,000 hectares.
Data analyst Dominic Swan crunches numbers from farm machinery, eight weather stations, drones and soil mapping to influence variables ranging from sprayer and fertilizer applications to planting dates and seeding rates.
The idea is to share knowledge to make each partner’s respective systems more efficient, and therefore more resilient to unstable climatic and financial shocks – especially important in a time of soaring fuel, feed and fertilizer costs.
Mr Swan said: ‘It’s about five agricultural companies, working together, pooling data and trying to analyze it so that we can influence decisions in the future or measure the impact of those decisions.’
Poul Hovesen, chairman of the group, said: “We agreed that if we were going to do this, it had to be real data, and everything had to be transparent and available to all of us. It gives confidence in a change in policy.
“We all have individual strengths, but together we have much more strength.
“Initially it was the influence on the culture managers, and they all mentioned how important it was to have the support of colleagues that they could have a good open discussion with. When we got over that, we realized we could influence our technical operators and they responded tremendously.
“After that, the owners of these businesses suddenly opened their eyes and said that was really interesting. That’s probably, basically, where we’ve had the most effect. That’s never happened before. .”
A bespoke application was developed to collect information on machine operations, cultivation and drilling.
James Beamish, Farm Manager of Holkham Estate, said: “Over the past three seasons, every time a machine has entered the field, we have measured things as simple as the time spent in that field, the fuel consumption, cultivation depth.
“Across the five companies, we all have different brands of machines, all different horsepower, all slightly different systems – but we can always pull data to get an idea of the energy costs or operational costs of what we’re doing. “
Mr Swan described an example of a simple ‘tramline trial’ in Salle to assess the impact of various nitrogen fertilizer rates against combine yield maps – which concluded that the farm was already applying the optimal rate.
Prime Agriculture’s Steve Baldock, who provides agronomy for the group, said: “This is still very valuable knowledge. In an environment where wheat prices have almost doubled, fertilizer prices have quadrupled, we are then able to plug this information in to determine where the optimum was.
“It’s about optimizing. The industry is in a very reductionist phase right now, where everything has to be reduced, but really it’s about optimizing every decision you make.”
Ed Salmon of NE Salmon agrees. “It’s about optimizing costs, not cutting costs,” he said.
“There was never an absolute goal from the start that we had to reduce our spraying costs by 20%, for example. It’s about optimizing these to produce the optimum yield. Then you get the lowest cost per tonne rather than saying we have to shave a certain amount off our inputs.”
Tom Pearson of Raynham Estate said the Catalyst approach helped him maximize a specific asset.
“A unique trait of Catalyst at Raynham is the AD (anaerobic digestion) energy plant that we have on the farm, so we also have access to a lot of organic fertilizer in the form of digestate, so we are experimenting with how we optimize that digestate and how much we can save on our artificial fertilizer bill.
“We did some trials last year where we grew a field of winter wheat and half of it used artificial fertilizers and the other half was organic fertilizers in the form of liquid digestate, and we got saw a 12pc yield increase and a saving of £180 per hectare in fertilizer.
“Again, it’s about optimization – learning how we can optimize our use of digestate and apply it in the most precise and efficient way. It was an exciting trial and it also protects us from increasing variable costs in the form of fertilizer. , so that’s a big advantage for us.”