16 March 2023
An early adopter of the Crop4Sight system shares his experience.
MANY see the future of agriculture as data driven and Richard Maddocks of Wilfred Maddocks Ltd, Shropshire is now one of them, after using a Crop4Sight system over several seasons.
The third-generation family farming business started out with the crop management platform during its development phase and has been incorporating the continuous functionality updates ever since.
Richard said: “It’s now helping from the time seed arrives in the spring, right through to harvest. It’s also helping our customers, as we have lots of information about our crops at our fingertips at any stage.”
One of the most recent additions to the Crop4Sight system is its seed module and 2023 will be the second spring that Richard has used it in his pre-planting planning process.
Working out the optimum seed rate is key to marketable yield and hitting the most valuable size fraction for the target market. Lower seed rates establish fewer plants and give space and resources for tubers to bulk, so growers aiming for a high baker percentage will lower rates to maximise the 65mm-85mm fraction.
Conversely, higher seed rates see the crop produce a higher number of smaller tubers which create the best size distribution for seed and salad crops.
Fine tuning seed rates can also help growers manipulate how quickly crops reach the right size for their market, with lower seed rates allowing crops to bulk faster for early harvesting.
Richard says he has been impressed with the performance of the seed module, having used it with Produce Solutions Agronomist Fiona Law-Eadie to formulate seed rates for packing and processing crops.
The required inputs include variety, planting date, seed size (determined by tuber count per 50kg of seed) and 50% emergence dates of the seed crop.
The 50% emergence dates allow the system to calculate the seed lot’s chronological age – the elapsed time between 50% emergence of the seed crop and planting of the ware crop – which influences stem numbers in the daughter crop.
Crop4Sight relates this grower information to data from independent variety trials and historic commercial data to calculate the right seed rate to achieve the target stem and tuber population.
“It’s surprising the difference in seed rate we see between planting on April 25th compared to March 25th, particularly when using larger 45-55mm seed. It can be as much as 25% less seed to hit the target stem population,” said Richard.
This year’s seed rate calculations have helped Richard work round a seed shortage for a key variety. It allowed him to explore the impact of planting date on the seed rate and choose a planting window that will require less seed without compromising marketable yield.“It’s taken the guesswork out the planning process and that has been a big help with supply issues this year. It’s dead easy to use and the predicted stem and tuber numbers have been very accurate”
Once seed is planted Richard, Farm Manager Matthew Dudley and Agronomist Fiona are out walking crops once a week and this is where Crop4Sight’s in-season insights kick in. They take stem counts to ground truth the seed module’s forecasts and tuber population predictions are re-run if crop establishment has not been as expected.
This aids early decision making, facilitating tweaks to nutrition programmes and target harvest date based on yield potential.
It can also benefit Richard’s customers, as in 2021 when some of his crops were hit by late frosts and stem numbers were lower than anticipated.
On Crop4Sight, Richard could see tuber numbers were forecast to be low and were likely to result in a much bolder sample of packing variety Jelly than the packer would like.
“We supply our potatoes between September and November, and we could see in June that there might be a problem. We were able to have a conversation with Greenvale and pre-warn them. Without Crop4Sight we wouldn’t have been able to prove that with any degree of confidence,” he said.
Addressing the issue early meant Greenvale could talk to its customers and subsequently adjust maximum size to 90mm instead of the usual 85mm, helping maintain Richard’s marketable yield and ensure its customers were supplied.
The next step is to enter canopy data. Canopy cover drives the level of light interception fuelling the crop’s biological yield. From inputs of smartphone imagery of the canopy and emergence data, the system forecasts how the crop will develop.
This year, the farm will be trialling the use of satellite imagery to compliment ground level imagery.
The system’s monitoring of actual versus predicted canopy development gives early warnings of potential issues in the field to adjust management or expectation of yield as the season progresses.
Richard says this capability was tested by last year’s unprecedented hot spell, when it picked up that some crops had stopped growing when temperatures spiked above 35C on five consecutive days.
Fortunately, in irrigated crops the actual growth curve didn’t deviate much from the prediction and yields were good.
But on the 30% that don’t receive irrigation, it was a different story, with the canopy going backwards and Crop4Sight predicting a 30% yield drop that was confirmed at second digs closer to harvest.
Some may question the value of this information, as it is obvious the heat and drought would have an impact. However, Richard would rather have any bad news well in advance and address it.
Crop4Sight gave a picture of what he had across his entire area and reassured him that he was unlikely to end up delivering short of contracts.
“As it was so extreme, I did question whether the data would be robust, but it was as accurate as it’s always been.”
As the season reaches a crescendo and thoughts turn to desiccation, harvest scheduling and maleic hydrazide application, this is where he gets the most out of the system.
Although one would expect the earliest planted crops to reach optimum marketable size first, varietal factors and variability in field conditions mean this is not always the case.
The system tracks crop development, giving Richard forecasts of when they will hit the right size to schedule flailing and stop the crop. This is particularly important in his pre-pack crops, where he is looking for 50% baker content, typically 65-85mm.
At the other end of the scale, he needs to eliminate tubers under 45mm, as he harvests straight into boxes and sells crop off the field, so there is no opportunity to grade them out.
“We can programme desiccation and harvest at the back end to meet our customers’ needs and maximise our marketable yield. If a crop has been knocked and not going to reach its potential, we can also see that and harvest it early, and, if a crop has thrown a few more tubers and needs time to bulk, we can let it run on.
“If our landlords want a crop out by a certain date, it helps plan that accurately, too.”