Drone mapping confirms crop health issues

Gary Naylor bought his first professional level drone to provide him with a new angle on his photography business. It wasn’t long before the former farm manager began to investigate wider applications for potatoes and a range of other crops.

Gary Naylor demonstrates his drone in a crop of Maris Peer at Heygate Farms, Swaffham, Norfolk.

Drone technology has progressed in leaps and bounds to incorporate high resolution, self-calibrating cameras, automated flight paths using GPS guidance systems and ‘orthomosaic’ software which stitches together multiple images to provide accurate, repeatable aerial mapping.
Anyone can go out and purchase a drone – a basic model which will give a reasonable image of a growing crop can be picked up for less than £100 – but offering a useful service to farmers (while operating within strict safety rules laid down by the Civil Aviation Authority) requires a serious investment in equipment, training and technical support.
Gary Naylor quickly recognised the benefits of using a ‘quadracopter’ drone when it came to capturing birds-eye photographic images of agricultural machinery at work, including potato harvesters. Taking his involvement to the next level, however, meant a trip to the United States to meet software developers and long hours teaching himself the intricacies of mapping functions and the analysis and interpretation of results. Only then could he begin engage with farmers and set them thinking about what he might do for them.


It takes just a few minutes for Mr Naylor to unpack the equipment, attach the rotors to the drone and calibrate the camera and navigation systems. A tablet which displays live images, flight data and safety warnings is mounted on a tripod that doubles up for static photography.

Drone altitude will typically be in the region of 60 to100 metres, well within the CAA’s 120-metre maximum height limit to keep it clear of small aircraft. Operators are also required to observe within a 500-metre line of sight for the purposes of collision avoidance. Flying times are dictated largely by battery life though wind speed and direction can reduce the drone’s range. A typical flight of 15–20 minutes will allow Mr Naylor to cover an average-sized potato field but there are times when strong winds or wet conditions mean that the drone stays in the back of the truck.
‘There is a bit of set up involved but it does fly very reliably and every image is geo-referenced which means that when you import it into software such as GoogleEarth, Pear or Gatekeeper and the map will automatically position itself in the right place,’ says Mr Naylor. ‘Measurements are very accurate and if we flew this field here, for example, the drone would take lots of overlapping pictures which are compatible with these other platforms. Not only would you see a problem in the crop but you can also create and export a file and it’s there forever.
‘What I am saying to growers is that it is real time, it is repeatable and if we do find something in a field then the flight plan can be copied and I can do exactly the same again next week. I can share the orthomosaic data with the grower and one set of images can also be used to also create a terrain map, a plant health map or a 3D model.’

Wolds growers step up to the mark

WCM’s list of shareholders and contract growers includes some of the most highly respected potato producers in East Yorkshire – names such as Soanes, Kendall, JSR and Stockdale. What’s so special about the seed they produce on the chalky soils between the Vale of Pickering and the Humber?

WCM’s Chris Yardley and David Birks checking progress on the company’s variety trials field at Market Weighton near York.

Certified seed potatoes grown on the Yorkshire Wolds are subject to phytosanitary standards which are identical in most respects to those which apply north of the border. Field inspections and grading tolerances are essentially the same and are governed by rules which were designed to harmonise seed health standards across the European Union. Yorkshire producers, just like their counterparts in Scotland, are required to have potato land tested for the presence of PCN and their crops are subject to statutory inspections during the growing season and prior to sale. Growers in both countries have signed up to the Safe Haven scheme, the only significant difference being the proviso that seed produced in Yorkshire cannot then be replanted in the Scottish protected region.

Seed growers face much the same challenges whether they are located in Aberdeenshire, Tayside or East Yorkshire, with the principal considerations being the transmission of aphid-borne viruses and the potential spread of soft rot bacteria. According to WCM’s David Burks and Chris Yardley, the growers they deal with have two major advantages over the Scots – climate and soil type.

Judicious use of aphicides deals with the first problem while the combination of free draining soils and early harvest dates helps to reduce the risk of blackleg and powdery scab. They also point out that there is no shortage of clean land which comes with little or no history of potato production. This is due, in part, to the fact that thin soils with a high stone content are not always well suited to ware production; growers in some areas around Driffield and down towards the Humber estuary simply can’t produce the tonnages required for a commercial crop on what might be described as ‘marginal’ potato land. Some have, however, been persuaded that seed production is a better bet and WCM’s certified seed area is currently around 500 hectares, two thirds of which was already sold by the time this season’s crops were first inspected by FERA.
The reputation of Yorkshire seed has grown in recent years and WCM can take some of the credit as potato breeders have entrusted the grower group with the multiplication of their new varieties. The company’s annual trials day at Shiptonthorpe near Market Weighton is now an established part of the summer calendar with more than 100 demonstration plots this year laid out alongside a field-scale selection of processing and prepacking varieties.
Growing seed crops successfully is all about the fundamentals, technical director Chris Yardley insists. ‘It’s about climate, soil type, storage and grading.’ Marketing manager David Burks agrees and reckons it has a lot to do with the weather at the time of harvesting. ‘We always harvest seed when it has dry feet – sometimes growers in Scotland simply don’t have that advantage.’
‘We usually manage to plant into warm soils and aphids are generally not an issue,’ says Mr Yardley. ‘We’ve virus tested 300 or more samples over the years and we’ve only had two crops where we have seen a problem. There is a myth that you can’t grow virus-free stocks outside Scotland.
‘We do have aphids,’ he admits, ‘but we manage them correctly. We don’t normally have an issue with powdery scab and our seed crops are generally clean on blackleg. Storage tends to be newer here with good ventilation capacity and when it comes to grading we can turn things around quickly so that we don’t leave people waiting – but we do ask for two weeks’ notice.

New options for easier transport

Tong Engineering has announced new features on its popular Fieldloader, including an automatic ‘transport-mode’ option which renders the machine more compact on the road. The Fieldloader is designed to provide effective in-field crop cleaning and inspection straight off the harvester with direct loading into bulker lorries.
‘Our Fieldloader is increasingly popular with growers as it means that soil is removed in the field and kept off the public roads,’ explains export sales manager Charlie Rich. ‘Transport is significantly reduced as there is a no need to move crop to a central yard or location. It significantly cuts handling times, allowing growers to meet tight deadlines and deliver crop in optimum condition straight from the field.’

Grimme’s latest field loader handling carrots for Huntapac.

Mr Rich says one of the key benefits of the Fieldloader is the fact that it incorporates a heavy duty infeed hopper, crop cleaner, inspection area and integrated extending elevator all in one mobile unit while the new options are set to offer easier movement across the farm.
‘While some growers choose to operate the Fieldloader in the yard, many customers move the machine between fields. With this in mind we have designed a model which incorporates a powered elevator section that automatically retracts back under the cleaning and inspecting sections of the machine, making the unit as short as possible when towing on the road. Foldable conveyors are also a feature on the new design to make it as narrow as possible too. The standard Fieldloader is around 22 metres long when fully operational but reduces to just under 15 metres when in transport-mode. Further options including full suspension, brakes, machine lighting and steering where required.’
Farming over 10,000 acres of root crops, barley and rye, Elveden Farms near Thetford on the Norfolk/Suffolk border is currently operating a Fieldloader which was custom-built for carrot and onion crops. To keep up with demand and achieve higher throughputs, the company has ordered a second system, complete with the new transport-mode options, for use on all root crops including potatoes. Farm manager Andrew Francis told Potato Review: ‘Our original Fieldloader has streamlined post-harvest crop handling times and has allowed us to achieve a very quick turnaround from field to bulker lorries. The second machine is now in production and we look forward to increasing our capacity even further.’

Grimme’s CleanLoader is new to the UK market but is built around the RH24-60 hopper which has been used for a number of years in the company’s mobile farm graders. It features two sets of coil cleaners, one for clod removal, the second for pre-grading, each with a telescopic cross-conveyor mounted underneath the machine to remove soil and trash. There is room for four pickers on the inspection table which has a trash conveyor on either side and twin hedgehog belts to carry the crop onto the cart elevator and into the waiting trailer.
The elevator has a 25-degree (6.5 metre) pivot range and a 7-metre loading length which means it is possible to leave the trailer off the field or to discharge crop over a hedge or ditch. It has a swan’s neck section which will reach down into the trailer or bulker to minimise the drop while still maintaining a loading height of 6.5 metres. For transport the tandem axle machine has hydraulic brakes, road lights and a detachable tow bar.

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