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Low till system uses drone to crop walk

Peter Nickols farms in partnership with his cousin and nephew at Willow Farm in Lincolnshire. D E Nickols and Sons Ltd farms 430 hectares with half dedicated to winter wheat. This is complemented by a mixture of break crops including OSR, spring beans, winter beans, spring oats, sugar beet and 2020 is the first year the farm is growing winter linseed. By using technology to change his farming system Mr Nickols is reducing soil compaction and chemical use to improve his soil health.

Mr Nickols has been gradually changing his cultivation techniques from a plough-based system to minimum tillage. As part of the move he has invested in drone software to monitor the crops more frequently and efficiently. “We are on the edge of the Fens and the land is perfectly flat so it’s easy to fly a drone and keep line of sight,” he says. “The soil ranges from sandy loams to heavy clays, and we have everything in between. We wanted to reduce stress on the soil by moving to a very low or zero till system, but we were also conscious that this would take time, so we looked for ways to time save in other areas,” he explains.

The aim was to save time crop walking, but we have since established it is capable of much more. I started early in 2020 and I was able to cover large areas of the farm very quickly. The drone can fly to as many points in the field as I choose, and it does it all in minutes compared to the hours it would take me on foot.

Skippy Scout is a phone or tablet based app that can be used to fly a drone. “I read about it in one of the farming magazines and immediately wanted to try it. The aim was to save time crop walking, but we have since established it is capable of much more,” he says. Mr Nickols imported his field maps to the app and began choosing points in the fields for the drone to fly to. “I started early in 2020 and I was able to cover large areas of the farm very quickly. The drone can fly to as many points in the field as I choose, and it does it all in minutes compared to the hours it would take me on foot,” he says.

Mr Nickols has a good eye for machinery and technology having previously run a family machinery business. “We had Willow Farm Machinery for a few years, but it was taking our attention away from the farm. I wanted to use our machinery connections to change the kit on the farm and pursue a low tillage system,” he explains. The farm has invested in a Vaderstad carrier 650 and a six metre Weaving GD drill amongst other specialist low tillage equipment. “It is important to have the right machinery and we wanted to invest in the future of our soil,” says Mr Nickols. 

This year is the first year he has not ploughed a single field. “Changing the cultivation technique is definitely helping the soil, and it is also helping us with black grass too,” says Mr Nickols. By subsoiling and not ploughing he believes he is keeping the black grass seed bank down. “In the past there have been times when we have had to spray large areas of a field off, but the last couple of years have been much better,” he says. 

I can use my drone to look for problems with a crop, once I am aware of any issues, I can then adapt my methods to suit. I think we [farmers] are going to have to change our methods to survive and technology is offering so many answers. I’m really encouraged by the investments I have made, and I will never look back.

Monitoring yellow rust in the wheat crop has been a particular concern for Mr Nickols. However, by using his drone he is able to spot it earlier and spray more effectively. “Using the drone, I can pop out early and send it to a couple of fields that I know have been problematic in the past. This way I can also build up data about a specific crop and field,” he says. The images he receives from the drone are high resolution and can be zoomed in on to look for signs of rust. “It is the best way I can see all of my crops with the time I have available and is enabling me to look at crops much more often than used to,” he adds.

Following the ban on neonicotinoid use, Mr Nickols has been concerned about his sugar beet and OSR crops. “Since losing the neo-nics we have seen a huge difference in the virus yellows and this year it the first time we won’t make quota with sugar beet,” he says. However, this year he has monitored the OSR crop more closely and frequently using his drone. “I can pick up flea beetles on the OSR using the drone too. Last year we had terrible trouble with flea beetle, but I have been able to react more quickly this year and we just don’t seem to have the same issues,” he adds. 

Skippy Scout is helping Mr Nickols’s to get more out of his Gatekeeper software. “I can save the images and cross reference the data with Gatekeeper to remind me how crops have performed year on year,” he says. Skippy Scout is able to analyse the images and provide an accurate green area index. It can also count plants to provide him with the data he needs to make decisions. “I’ve never got enough time to walk crops. Especially now when we are drilling, cultivating, and spraying. Being able to use the drone means that I can see the crop and get all my other work done,” he says. 

Mr Nickols is combining new machinery with John Deere tractors running on RTK and StarFire. He has also invested in Yara’s new N-Sensor. “We are saving in chemicals because the technology has moved on to help us,” he says. “I can use my drone to look for problems with a crop, once I am aware of any issues, I can then adapt my methods to suit. I think we [farmers] are going to have to change our methods to survive and technology is offering so many answers. I’m really encouraged by the investments I have made, and I will never look back,” he concludes.

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