Controlled Traffic Farming

In the Autumn of 2010 we introduced the first Precision Farming technical equipment to Agromino, it was pretty advanced for its time, cost us in the region of $10,000 per machine and was the Trimble Autopilot system. In very simple terms the device enabled the tractor with the assistance of GPS signals from several satellites that orbit the earth, to steer itself in a perfectly straight line. Initially, we fitted the devices to our cultivating and sowing machines, and then subsequently have steadily expanded the system to cover the majority of tasks performed in the fields and now in 2017 completed the whole agricultural cycle, with now our newer combine harvesters and chaser bin tractors also equipped with the system. In 2010 we were working to an accuracy of 20cms, today after the introduction of RTK technology (Real Time Kinetic) we now can work with an accuracy of 2.5cm and 98% repeatability to go back to where we have been driving exactly before.

CTF is exactly what it says, it is controlling where in the field traffic runs, and has the one aim which is to reduce the percentage of the field surface where there will be compaction that is caused by the machine’s wheels and tracks. Plants grow best in fields and wheels run best on roads, the two don’t mix very well, so by using the Auto pilot technology we can minimise the area where a wheel runs and maximise the area where crops grow.  We now plan where the wheels will run not just for this year but for all the years to come, in effect, we establish a permanent tram line system within the field and reduce the area where wheels run from perhaps 90% of the field surface to 20% or less.

The return on the investment in the various technologies comes from not one but a combination of factors. Crop yields will increase as the soil is not compacted and it has a better moisture holding capability, this being particularly relevant to the areas in which Agromino operates. Un-compacted soil allows the plant root to grow without restriction, a bigger root system more fully exploits available soil moisture and nutrients, and captures more efficiently fertilisers applied by the farmer, the plant is then healthier, more efficient, and yields are improved. Add to the equation reduced tillage methods and the result is a simple system that reduces fuel, labour, management and machinery time per hectare, thus driving down overall operational costs.  

CTF also delivers environmental benefits, with less fuel being used to operate each hectare, and less machinery needing spare parts,  there is a direct knock on that there are fewer greenhouse gas emissions, Agromino’s  carbon footprint is reduced and farming’s negative effect on the environment is further minimised.

In 2017 the business needed to start the process of reinvestment in several key areas of the machinery fleet. With the majority of the combine harvesters being now at least 10 years old and becoming both expensive to maintain and increasingly unreliable, they understandably became a priority in order to reduce risk, when farming depreciation is real, machines do wear out and need replacing; to ignore this exponentially increases the risk in your business. When you get to this point it is now important to look forward at least 10 years and not just 3 or 4 as you might have done in the past. The decisions you make will affect how you operate for another ten years and it is critical to think them through carefully and get it right, it can be very expensive if you get it wrong. When you replace equipment in an agribusiness it is logical to upsize, introduce the most modern technology and try to reduce the number of units you operate. In 2016 we were operating 26 combine harvesters, that were some of the biggest capacity available when purchased, but 10 years later were by comparison pretty small, so the question was what to replace the fleet with. 

Agromino’s farming system had developed since 2010 to the point in 2017 where the majority of sprayers and fertiliser spreaders being used are 36 metres wide, our main wheat sowing implements are now either 18 metres or 12 metres wide, and the majority of our cultivation equipment is also 12 or 18 metres wide. Therefore the logical width to base our CTF system on is 36 metres, which means that any machines used should be divisible into 36 metres in exact numbers i.e. 12metres = 3x , 18m = 2x. So the decision was to move to and operate what is known as a 12/36 CTF system was pretty easy to arrive at.

The next step after deciding on the system width is the planning and it involves a lot of factors, most of which are very straight forward, but again critical that you get them right. Let`s go through them in a logical order remembering that the simpler you keep it, the easier it is to manage it.

Harvesting Equipment

Having decided on a 12/36 CTF system the biggest investment is in the harvesting fleet, the harvester you buy must be able to cut at 12metres, unload into a chaser bin that is running exactly 12 metres from the centre of your machine and must have a trash management system on it that can chop and spread the crop residue evenly to a full 12 metres swath. Importantly the harvester must be auto steer equipped and have pre-installed in its memory the exact tram line grid of the field. We chose the Case 9240 equipped with tracks, Autosteer that is fully compatible with our existing Trimble system, and an extended unloading auger; it is a well proven machine, relatively simple with less moving parts than many of its rivals, and good value for money. For cereals and oilseeds harvesting we have purchased Macdon FD140 Flexdraper headers, we consider them to be the very best harvesting option on the market and are fully understanding of the fact that the header and how efficient it is, really has one of the largest effects on harvester output. Our aim is that each machine should be able to harvest up to 500 tonnes of crop per day; you can only achieve this with the best equipment and first class logistical management. The header width is 12.2 metres, the additional 0.2 metres is enough to allow for any GPS inaccuracies which will inevitably occur.  

It is the combine and one of its physical parameters that determine the next important fundamental part of the system and that is the track width that all machines will be set to so that they all run on the same tram line in the field. On the Case 9240 the wheel tracks are at a 3 metre centre therefore 3 metres is the track width that will be used for all our other agricultural machines that run in the field. Some equipment is adjustable and other machines need modifications, tractors of the 300 horsepower size normally need some additional wheel spacers and larger horsepower machines normally can be simply adjusted. In time though all operations must be on a 3 metre track width, cultivating, seeding, rolling, spraying, fertilising, harvesting and grain carting, there is a lot to consider and plan for.

Once we had worked through all the machinery updates or changes that were needed we came to the next major step, this is the careful mapping and planning of the tracks in all the fields. It is time consuming, requires special software, and an agronomist with good IT skills; we are using the Case AFS Mapping Software which again is fully compatible with our existing Trimble equipment. The good thing is that it only needs doing once and then uploading into all the machines memories, a big task but a must if the system is ever to work.

Then comes training and in our first season where we have operated 5 combines in CTF mode, we have learnt a lot ( and continue to learn each day !). It takes time and a lot of patience, but once the team understands the objective and adapts into the system, everyone actually soon begins to enjoy it and there is a growing sense of pride in their work. Little things make big differences, two-way radios to improve communications, harvester team sizes and team leaders are essential, chaser bins need to be both big enough, wide enough and able to empty in less than 5 minutes. Planning forward for 2 weeks rather than 2 days is essential, management skills have to be absolutely 100%. 

It is now the beginning of September 2017, the five machines have to date completed over 5100 hectares of crops that will be grown in 100% CTF for 2018, after the harvesting of Sunflower and Soya we hope to increase this area substantially.

As with many things in agriculture the return will not be immediate, farming is and always will be a long term business, but we anticipate seeing positive differences in our crops in year one and if the experience of farmers in countries as diverse as the United Kingdom, Australia and America are anything to go by in three years’ time we should be really reaping the benefits of our changes to CTF. 

It has been an interesting journey so far and we are very grateful to many individuals and companies that have advised and helped us get started at an incredibly fast rate. So thank you to the Agromino team Alexander, Oleg, Roman, Konstantin and Valeri and thank you to CTF Europe, Titan Machinery, Alfagro , Case IH Ukraine, Macdon, Brent,  Hawe, and anyone else I have missed.

Our plan is to update this ‘blog’ as we develop over the next three years, if in the mean time you have any questions please do email us at  mail@agromino.com 

Simon Boughton 

September 2017

 

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