Helix Central – Bringing technologies together for best farm performance

An aim to keep ahead of the game has led Oxfordshire farmers George and Jerry Stephenson of R.H. Stephenson & Son to join Hutchinson’s Helix Farm network. ...

An aim to keep ahead of the game has led Oxfordshire farmers George and Jerry Stephenson of R.H. Stephenson & Son to join Hutchinson’s Helix Farm network.

The Helix project trials and adapts new technology developments and innovations at a whole-farm scale level alongside the wider impact on factors such as soil health, rotation planning and carbon foot printing, to help farmers improve economic and environmental sustainability.

George Stephenson believes joining the Helix project will provide valuable information to help shape future farm practices. Indeed many of the technologies he is implementing on his farm now were trialed and tested on other Helix farms over the last two years.

“We are always interested in trying out the latest advances in farming and by knowing about new products before they go to market gives us an edge,” he explains.

“So when our previous agronomist retired and we started working with a Hutchinsons agronomist, Toby Page and he filled us in on the Helix Project, we made a decision to offer to host trials here.”

Hutchinsons is conducting a range of work at Upper Anynho Grounds this season, covering many different areas, but sharing common aims of improving efficiency, building resilience and developing more sustainable farming systems.

George has been particularly impressed with the Omnia precision farming system which provides a central “hub” to record, analyse and evaluate much of the information, from crop observations, satellite imagery and input plans, to Terramap soil analysis and yield data.

“With Omnia, both farmer and agronomist have instant access to what is going on in the field, which helps with our planning as we can use it to inform and improve crop management decision making and management of the overall farm and business.”

“We particularly like the system because it is easy to use, and we can be on it at the same time as the agronomist and spray operator, so if we find something needs changing at the last minute, we can put the information in.”

For example, he can send information about variable rate fertiliser from the computer, straight to the iPad and the fertiliser spreader in the field.

Another useful feature he has found  to be particularly helpful is the Terra mapping which has helped his decisions on soil management.

TerraMap is Hutchinson’s unique soil mapping system. It uses gamma-ray radiation technology to deliver resolutions of over 800 points/ha, providing high definition mapping of all common nutrient properties, pH (e.g. % clay, % sand, % silt), soil texture, organic matter and CEC as well as elevation and plant available water.

The results from TerraMap are used to create maps within the Omnia precision farming system which can then be overlaid with additional field information such as black-grass, yields and so on, to create the most accurate, consistent and detailed variable rate plans.

“We have a mixture of sandy loam and Cotswold brash and although the soils are not in bad condition, from the results of the recent mapping, it appears we were over-cultivating them.”

“We have started to  variably use nutrients where needed, and will suit its composition; for example we are now applying potash products to certain fields rather than Double Top.”

“Using the TerraMap layers, we detected a band of heavy clay in the middle of the field, another area of brash, and another of sand.

“This is all important for our cultivations and seed rate strategies, and we now know we should be using  more seeds in on the heavier ground. While the plan is to move to almost 100 % direct drilling, we will continue to do some low disturbance cultivations to incorporate applications of organic matter on the lighter land.”

“Given the reduced size of our toolbox, being part of the Helix initiative will also will help us analyse how to  best address some of the pest and disease challenges such as yellow rust, barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) and black-grass using the Pest & Disease forecasting model.”

George emphasised that he was particularly interested in modern plant breeding traits as he sees them as the way forward. So he is playing close attention to the variety trials – with a particular interest in the hybrid wheat variety Hyking which is being trialled on the farm.

“We are evaluating the benefits hybrid varieties may bring; for example the crop did not drill well, was sown at half the seed rate, yet  it came through well and tillered out,” he said. “Looking at it, we could not see any difference to the other conventional wheats sown at regular seed rates.

He noted that hybrid seeds are always going to be more expensive, but there may be areas where they work better than conventionals, and participation in the  Helix trials will help him evaluate this.

“Hybrid barley, on the other hand, did not yield well last year; and conventional varieties were thicker than the hybrids. This may be because of our soils; heavier land may be more suited to hybrid barley.

“One of the many benefits of this scheme is the opportunity for a small arable farm to participate in research and try out new varieties and test products such as foliar feeding.”


Farm facts:

Own farm: 100ha

2 contract farms: 263ha and 150ha

Crops grown: winter wheat, winter barley, winter rye, spring barley, spring oats, winter oats, oilseed rape

Soils: Cotswold brash, sandy loam

Drill (for direct drilling): John Deere 750A

Using technology to bridge the gap

Bringing together the technology from TerraMap and the Helix Gold Soil Test Results helps growers make decisions on seed rates, the sort of nutrients the soil needs and how much it needs, said Hutchinsons’ technical manager Dick Neale.

Assessment of soil health is one of the keys to unlocking the crop’s yield potential, and includes visual evaluation of soil structure and texture, infiltration rates, pH and key microbiology.

“By using TerraMap we can see the soil layers which helps determine variable rates to use,” said Mr Neale.

“However, seed bed quality will depend on the proportions of calcium (Ca)  Magnesium (Mg) and organic matter (OM) in the soil, rather than just the soil texture.”

The Helix Gold Test was used to determine soil pH because of its capacity to affect nutrient availability and uptake.

He explained that Ca improves flocculation, while magnesium (Mg) holds water,  the balance between Ca and Mg determines flocculation and seedbed behaviour.

“We have high silt and clay content here but the highest clay content is countered by good Ca levels, adequate Mg and a good OM percentage meaning we can predict good seedbed quality or focus in on areas that may pull down establishment performance.

“Understanding these characteristics will help determine the appropriate actions in each case so growers can manage their soils and inputs to make the most from their crops. ”

Trial Plots Include

  • 32 wheat varieties (treated and untreated)
  • Nutrition trial
  • Fungicide testing
  • Variable seed rates
  • Hybrid wheat tramline trial
  • Bio-elicitor tramline trial
  • Nutrition trial

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