How Strategic Cereal Farms use data to improve yield and efficiency

Friday, 8 December 2023

With farm data often from multiple sources and in many formats, it is not always easy to make sense of it, which is why our Strategic Cereal Farms want to unpick the data puzzle.

In this blog, Joe Martlew, AHDB Senior Knowledge Transfer Manager, provides a flavour of the fascinating programme of work across the network that aims to help farmers get to grips with data.

During November 2023, four Tuesday webinars highlighted the latest Strategic Cereal Farm results. This blog is based on the first of these webinars (which is available to view on YouTube).

In-season measurements

Steve Hoad (SRUC) and David Aglen (Strategic Cereal Farm Scotland host) presented results from experiments that used crop measurements to guide nitrogen decisions during the season. The experiments have been in place since the Strategic Cereal Farm started in autumn 2020.

To date, plant tissue measurements, such as Brix or sap analysis, have produced highly variable results. Additionally, with no robust benchmarks available, it is not proving easy to interpret the results. Steve commented that, so far, it is difficult to have confidence in these approaches when it comes to relating the in-season measurements to crop nitrogen demand.

Drone-collected NDVI data, which is more widely understood, was more promising, with results matching crop nitrogen demand more closely.

The experiments are also helping the team investigate how crop management approaches, such as spring grazing cereals with sheep, impact nitrogen requirements.

David and the team will build the data set, which will eventually cover the full six-year lifespan of this Strategic Cereal Farm. The full results will help determine whether in-season measurements can be used to reliably predict crop nitrogen demand.

Post-season data

Second up was Susie Roques (ADAS) and David Blacker (Strategic Cereal Farm North host). David has amassed over a decade’s worth of farm data, covering yield, soil and weather. The team performed an in-depth analysis of this geospatial data set to help the farm ‘speak’ for itself.

The results highlighted strong links between soil and yield that could be exploited to predict yield stability over multiple seasons. However, extreme weather events did change the pattern.

Although a promising result, the amount of geospatial data and analysis required means the approach is unlikely to be realistic for most farm businesses.

However, Susie pointed out that many of the same trends could be picked up by simply ‘eyeballing’ yield maps. For example, the identification of consistently poor-yielding areas can focus efforts to establish the underlying causes of suboptimal performance. This could involve the use of targeted soil and tissue sampling or looking closely at soil scanning and texture maps.

Yield maps

Finally, David Clarke from NIAB ran through an analysis of yield-map data from two Strategic Cereal Farms –East (Suffolk) and South – that provided insight into variability across fields (spatial variation) and seasons (temporal variation). For example, looking at yield stability over seasons can help narrow down more frequent sampling to the parts of the field that would benefit from it the most.

The analysis also identified areas where the use of higher nitrogen rates to push yield may not pay off. However, although the long-term pattern suggested such areas were unlikely to respond with a positive margin, the same trends did not occur in all years. David suggests that building up a long-term data set is key, especially when dealing with nitrogen, which is strongly affected by seasonal factors, such as temperature and moisture.

This work will now continue at our new Strategic Cereal Farm in the East (Norfolk) with host farmer David Jones. It is an exciting new chapter for the work, because of the availability of strong long-term data sets at the farm. The inclusion of such data will be invaluable in accounting for seasonal effects and providing robust information to help guide nitrogen applications.

Key takeaways

  • Not yet enough confidence in Brix or sap analysis to guide in-season nitrogen management
  • Yield-map data is largely undervalued – comparing multiple seasons can provide valuable information on the drivers of yield and where to collect samples
  • Although robust data analysis is the gold standard, ‘eyeballing’ past yield maps is a good place to start understanding yield variation

Further information

Visit the Strategic Cereal Farm home page