Future proofing with variable rate inputs – with Steve Baxter

A Yorkshire farm has turned to variable rate applications to build a more profitable and sustainable future…

With 11,000 pigs and 650ha of combinable cropping and contracting, near Pocklington, Thirsk Farms sits across 7 sites within a 10-mile radius. The farm business is diverse, running various enterprises that extend to commercial lets, and more recently a commercial grain store, with 13,000 tonnes of grain storage for local farmers.

The business started its journey into precision farming three years ago when local Hutchinsons agronomist Sam Hugill had a couple of the farm’s outlying fields TerraMapped.

“One of the fields ran alongside a housing estate and it was assumed the poor performance of the crops here was down to toxins or sediments running out of the estate. However, the TerraMapping showed this not to be the case at all – the soils were deficient in micro-nutrients and the previous soil sampling had not shown this up,” explains Sam.

Impressed with the accuracy of data that TerraMap yielded over their previous soil mapping system, farmer Harry Thirsk and his manager Steve Baxter made the decision to move over to Omnia and sign up to have the whole farm TerraMapped using the Standard + OM service.

“We felt this was the right investment to make for our farm business and have not looked back.”

Steve references how in the past it was challenging to get any soil sampling done in-between combining and cultivations, and opportunities would often be missed, however this was certainly not the case with the Omnia team.

“In fact, we were the ones being chased as the TerraMap scanner was often waiting at the side of the fields as the combine came off – even late on a Saturday night!”

Omnia precision specialist Chris Blashill was able to bring all the Thirsk Farm data over from the previous system and incorporate this into Omnia.

“It was pretty straightforward to do and meant that all of the data which belonged to Thirsk Farms was brought into Omnia so we could use this going forward.”

Variable rate nitrogen

Steve continues: “The nitrogen crisis was the pivot for us to look at how we could introduce variable rate nitrogen; we wanted to make the best use of our pig manure ensuring it was going where it was needed. We had always just gone on with a blanket approach and then topped up where and when we felt we should – ‘pot holing’ which we wanted to move away from – and on top of this make the most efficient use of any expensive nitrogen we were buying in.”

The team worked closely together to incorporate data from TerraMap, manure management plans, historical field characteristics and the rotation to draw up variable rate nitrogen application plans.

Omnia generates variable rate plans built on all this data, explains Chris. “Then it is simply a matter of putting the fields onto a USB stick and these go straight into the tractor and away it goes.”

“It’s been a revelation, “ says Steve. ”We have had trailers arriving back to the store with bags of nitrogen that were not needed!”

Sam cites the example of one outlying field that had come out of five years of grass. “This was going into a first wheat, so just before the last cut of grass we had the field TerraMapped. We were surprised at how nutrient deficient some areas of the field were, but on discussion with Steve we realised it has not been receiving the same amounts of pig manure as fields closer to the home farm unit.”

“Manure management plans were created in Omnia to address this, and this also led to the farm investing in new all-season stone tracks to allow manure to be tipped where needed during winter.”

“We used NDVI Satellite imagery and chlorophyll mapping at key nitrogen application timings to generate the variable rate nitrogen plans within Omnia,” explains Chris.

“The range at GS30 was quite something – only needed 207kgN/ ha whilst others needed 293kgN/ha – that’s a difference of 86kgN in just one field – that’s £1900 of nitrogen saved on one field vs a blanket application!”

“The crop evened up as it grew through the season with less and less variation, as you would expect,” he adds.

Yields have responded positively across the farm, with Sam reporting improvements of anywhere between 3-5%, and this particular field yielding 9.19t/ha.


Future plans

The team are now looking at variable rate drilling for cereals this autumn in a bid to even up establishment across the wide range of soil types. As well as the soil data from TerraMap, weed pressure and slug maps will be created within Omnia.

“It’s been a team collaboration from start to finish,” says Steve. “Knowing that my agronomist and Omnia specialist are working closely together means that I don’t have to worry about it. Sam walks the crops and knows which fields need what and when, and he speaks to Chris who manages Omnia so that field operations happen when the crop needs them.”

“There is no doubt in our minds that this is the way forward,” he says. “Omnia has more than paid for itself just through the savings we have made on nitrogen. But more than that, it’s better for our soils and long-term sustainability of the farm.”

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