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Precision Farming, UK Style

When Philip Chamberlain was thrust into the front line of farm management at the age of 24 on the death of his father, a process of change was set in motion that brought increased efficiency, output and scale to the family’s Oxfordshire farming operation.

From 1969 to 1975, when Chamberlain took up the reins, farm staff numbers had already been reduced from 13 to eight, and with a young man’s enthusiasm for big tractors and implements, numbers continued to tumble over the ensuing years, despite a move into contract farming on neighbouring land that steadily increased the area farmed.

“We did take things a bit too far a few years ago at more than 600 ha (1,500 acres) per man — although I was doing more tractor driving then,” he admits. “We’ve now settled to a more manageable 540ha (1,350 acres) per man.”

Over the past nine years, gains in manpower efficiency have only been possible by switching from plowing to almost 100 per cent minimum tillage and by further upgrading overall capacity of the farm’s key machines — the lead tractor as well as the self-propelled sprayer, which handles both pesticide and liquid fertilizer applications across the full area.

Most recently, precision farming technology in different forms has begun to make an impact — on efficient use of inputs, on the ability of operators to sustain higher daily work outputs, and on the environmental impact of the farming operation.

“In the early days, output and productivity were everything, and if you take a look around the farm you’ll find some pretty large fields,” explains Chamberlain. “But we’ve been conscious of farming with an eye to the local environment for some time now, so you’ll also find a lot of young trees and hedges. And we’re still doing conservation work today.”

The home operation at Preston Crowmarsh near Wallingford, which has been in the Chamberlain family’s care for more than 100 years, is one of five blocks of land totalling about 1,500 ha (3,750 acres) managed by Crowmarsh Battle Farms.

Winter wheat is the predominant crop, accounting for just over half the total, and most of that is seeded to milling varieties capable of earning a decent premium for bread or biscuit flour.

The remaining land is seeded to a varied mix that includes winter oilseed rape, winter oats grown for porridge, winter/ spring beans, and winter feed barley, which is in the rotation mainly to provide an entry for outdoor pigs run by a contract farming client.

Spring barley grown for malting, protein peas and some grass complete the range of crops produced, with woodland, tracks and land in various stewardship schemes making up the tally.

“We’re not in the most fertile part of the country here.

Crowmarsh Battle Farms recently upgraded from a 3,500-litre/32m (105-foot) self-propelled sprayer to this Challenger RoGator 618S skid unit complete with 5,000-litre/32m (105-foot) Chafer-brand spraying kit. The move has given a useful boost to the farm’s seasonal capacity. Hydro N-Sensor mounted on top of the RoGator cab measures light reflectance from the crop from four different angles. Control software then calculates the amount of N required and adjusts the application rate.

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