Precision farming thanks to Global Positioning System. New possibilities for farming more precisely and with more technical knowledge. A fine example of a project that LEADER supports.

In 2002, a group of seed-potato growers met in northeast Friesland with the idea of ‘doing something about precision farming’. They responded to reports from the USA and Germany. Mijno van Dijk was in the process of using GPS technology for agricultural purposes in his mechanisation firm. Around the same time, Eddie Loonstra and his business called ‘The Soil Company’ had been inspired by the search for minerals on the ocean-floor. Via State University Groningen, he had developed measuring equipment for mapping the composition of minerals in a particular area using background radiation technology. Dirk Osinga, working for the AOC in Friesland, knew both Mijno and Eddie, and he introduced both parties to the inquisitive farmers. Together they set up the Precision Farming in Northeast Friesland Foundation with Osinga as their coordinator. Farmers from northwest Groningen were to join them soon. Ten crop farmers from the municipalities of Dongeradeel and De Marne united in Spinof. Via a number of other projects within the AOC, Osinga knew the LEADER coordinator Durk Holwerda from Lauwersland. ‘I thought he would be in favour of our project. On a small scale, innovative, aimed at practical applications and emerged from practical experience.’

Basis for precision farming

‘Typical LEADER’ was Holwerda’s first thought when he heard about the plans. ‘A project aimed at a better harvest and reducing the amount of fertiliser. Better for the environment, that can’t be a bad thing.’ Durk submits the plan for the project to the Lauwersland LAG. This Local Action Group gives an important advice on whether or not a project suits the LEADER philosophy and will be given the green light. The Lauwersland LAG regards innovation in agriculture as an important spearhead and stands behind the project, just like Holwerda. However, the group lacked any scientific foundation, so Spinof managed to get Wageningen University behind the project. In addition, the LAG proposed to include experimental farm Kollumerwaard in the project. This research institute with all its knowledge and experience became one of the partners of the project. And of course, as always when applying for subsidy, a basis for precision farming had to be demonstrated. Dirk: ‘The Rabo Bank promised us money from their projects fund. This private money, together with the input from farmers and the initiative from practice, demonstrates the amount of support there was.’ The precision farming project was then given the status of LEADER project, so Spinof could go ahead.

GPS in the tractor

A farmer may find it hard to drive his tractor in a straight line, so he may not remember which piece of land requires more (or perhaps less) fertiliser, or where the rotary cultivator should make some extra effort. The new technology introduced by Eddie Loonstra will enable crop farmers to better oversee their land. For each plot of land they are able to locate the minerals on a map. That’s how the farmer can see the better and poorer pieces of land.
For some time Mijno van Dijk has been working on the use of GPS for controlling tractors and machines to determine one’s position and to calculate the amount of fertiliser needed at various places. Osinga: ‘GPS and machine had to learn how to communicate with one another via the satellite.’ In the first year of the project, many things have been tried out and changes have been made to tractors and machines. Dirk says it makes him smile when he thinks back of the lack of knowledge in those days. ‘In the fertilising process we had a GPS installed at the front of the tractor, exactly timing when the valve should open or close further to fertilise the land. Every time the system stopped about 10 metres before the headland. As it turned out, the GPS measures at the front of the tractor, while the fertiliser was scattered some 15 metres back.’ The GPS appeared not all that accurate in any case. While driving a car, it doesn’t matter to hear the system announcing ‘destination reached’ five metres early, but in precision farming such inaccuracies are not acceptable. Digital GPS, the successor of GPS, was introduced. This system was accurate within 100 mm. Spinof was still not happy, and in the end the crop farmers went for the Real-Time Kinematic GPS, RTK-GPS, which is accurate within 20 mm. This system is not only using satellite technology but also a land transmitter. The transmitter can reach a distance of about ten kilometres. Knowing the price of one transmitter is between €15,000 and € 20,000, one can imagine the huge investments required in precision farming.

Off the top of one’s head

Since crop farmers have accurately charted their soil and more technologies are made available to precisely farm the land, one may wonder what else is needed for a product, such as seed-potatoes, to grow best. According to Osinga no one has really been interested in the past thirty years. ‘Many farmers have known for a long time what makes the product grow, but they do it off the top of their heads.’ For a scientific foundation of these and other questions, collaboration with Wageningen University is of great value. HZPC Holland, a specialised export company for seed-potatoes, is also an important partner for Spinof in this area. This company provides the crop farmers with professional information about sowing, growing and selling seed-potatoes. Osinga: ‘HZPC has collected many links in the production process of a business and knows what consumers want. Such information is most valuable to us.’ DSD Dokkum is also an important partner for Spinof, particularly in terms of their expert advice on fertilisation.

Precision farming successful

All modern tractors and machines are manufactured for use in precision farming. Manufacturers of machines and mechanisation firms have been listening to the demands from the farmers. Spinof started precision farming in the northern part of the Netherlands, but more and more groups of crop farmers in the country are getting the message. These groups also wish to develop precision farming further and apply innovative technologies in their own field. Osinga has been in contact with many of these groups that were part of the LEADER projects. These pioneers already have convinced many farming businesses to switch over to precision farming. ‘I am very proud of us having started all this in the Netherlands and of being so successful.’ But there are still crop farmers who do not want to have anything to do with precision farming. Holwerda: ‘There are farmers who want to carry on for another ten years and say: ‘I know my land, I know what grows well, and I don’t want it any different.’ These farmers are lagging behind and have no ambition to invest in new technologies.

Utilising every square metre

Research in new methods in the USA and Germany was already quite advanced before precision farming in the Netherlands emerged. Other countries have also picked up on precision farming in recent years. During a number of study trips, Spinof has been in contact with foreign projects. According to Dirk, other countries are having a different approach. ‘Two things. The projects in the Netherlands are bottom-up. Farmers who are working on the land every day are trying to apply precision farming on the job.’ In Germany, universities and other research institutes receive a substantial amount of government funding to study all the options and use this knowledge in practical work. In this way, farmers are not involved right from the start and the plans may scare them off. ‘Secondly, the Netherlands is known for its very intensive cultivation. We want to use each and every square metre to the best of our ability, in contrast to the Americans who simply skip the parts that do not look too well. We will make every effort to improve the bad patches to turn it into a perfect plot of land.’

Precision on the dairy farm

The LEADER project would officially expire in 2006. The major share of the European subsidy has been paid to Spinof. They are now waiting for the final account, so the foundation will be able to close off the project. The group hopes the project can soon be concluded in a financial sense, allowing the farmers to carry on in developing new technologies under the next subsidy provider. Holwerda also hopes that payment will follow soon. ‘The group may lose its dynamics, and that should not happen. Our goal was the development of new technologies for the Lauwersland LEADER area. We have exceeded our expectations. We now have to carry on with these developments.’
One of these new developments may relate to dairy farming. Although precision farming has almost exclusively been taken up by crop farmers, Spinof can also see the benefits for the dairy industry. An example is the protection of grassland bird nests. The foundation is not short of ideas about precision farming, but it seems that dairy farmers are not ready for it yet. Osinga: ‘Perhaps the wrong timing, but we keep working on it. So many possibilities are still to be explored, and we would like to see a new project starting up to proceed.’