Tillage focus: Precision the name of the game in north Dublin

A lot of people think of technology when they hear the word precision, but GPS and N-sensors aren’t the only methods of precision agriculture.

Precision farming is exactly what it says on the tin – precise. Record keeping, yield recording, soil sampling and changing crop husbandry – as a result of these records – is a method of precision farming and that is exactly what Derek Keeling does on his farm.

Derek is one of three Better Tillage farms in the Teagasc programme. He hosted a farm walk last week; AgriLand was in attendance.

Derek Keeling walking his wheat in north Dublin

Crop records

Derek is an expert at keeping crop records. He records what works and, maybe more importantly, what doesn’t work on his farm.

Everything from how crops yielded, to the sprays, fertilisers, varieties and seed rates that worked best are recorded. Derek and his father have soil test records dating back to the 1970s.

“We have a weighbridge and everything that’s cut goes across it; even if there’s only a small bit in the trailer, it goes across the weighbridge,” Derek explained.

This way, we know exactly what way each field is performing. We’ve done this for the past 12-14 years.

When looking at his crop yields, he will also look at the input records and may decide to change his fertiliser or spray programme as a result.

Winter wheat on Derek’s farm in north Dublin

He will also look at his yields and pick out the weaker spots on the farm. He can then look at soil tests and input records and decide what needs to be done to improve a weaker field’s performance.

It’s a way of identifying problems in a field. We know what crops do well in certain fields and what rotation would work well.

“Dad has all the records for soil samples since the 1970s. We were doing one or two soil samples in a field, but we’re doing more now.”

Land in four fragments

Derek farms 390ha and there are three full-time employees on the farm – Derek, his Dad – Derek Snr – and Eamon. He also gets in help at busy times of the year – sowing and harvesting. His land is in four fragments.

The land in Donnabate is the furthest away and it is generally a few days earlier than the home farm.

“We have winter barley over there [Donnabate] and it gives us a couple of days to get the combine set up.”

Derek currently grows winter wheat, winter barley and spring barley. He rotates ground with a potato farmer and also incorporates compost into his land.

The compost is spread at rates of between 6t/ac and 12t/ac. Derek has been increasing the amount of land receiving compost each year; he currently spreads compost on 10-15% of his ground.

The Dublin man told the crowd at the open day that he has less passes on the field as a result of the improved soil structure; he is also saving diesel.

Top one third of tillage farmers

Derek is currently operating in the top one third of tillage farmers in the Teagasc eProfit Monitor. The Keelings operate a high-input, high-output system.

Once the crop is there, we push it as hard as we can.

“We’ve always pushed the crop as hard as we can to get yield; we push for high yield and high quality.”

Keeping good records and writing down what varieties suited or didn’t suit the farm – or what chemicals performed well – adds to the productivity of the system.

The majority of grain on the farm is dried and stored. He explained that prices are generally lower at harvest time and that it usually pays off to store grain.

“This year it paid. We still have a little bit of grain to sell. It has always paid; you’re at the mercy of the merchant at harvest time.”

Derek estimated that he gets paid an extra €18/t, on average, from January to August for his grain.

“We forward sell about 25% of the crop. I look at the markets every few days or ask the brokers or merchants. We generally don’t sell at harvest. We just sell a little bit to make space.

“We might look into premium markets a bit more, but it’s quite hard to get those premium prices,” he added.

TAMS and GPS

Derek is thinking of investing in a new grain dryer under the TAMS (Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme) in order to keep up with the capacity of his combine which he bought four years ago.

He hasn’t embraced GPS (Global Positioning System) technology like some tillage farms. While he can see the benefits of GPS, he doesn’t see it paying on his own farm.

“It’s something that could be interesting, especially for fatigue. Looking at a line for 16 hours a day can get very tiring; when you have self-steer, you don’t have to concentrate all of the time.

“Automatic shut-off might be a route that I would go down on the fertiliser spreader. It would help with the ins and outs. We’re inclined to give them more than less. That’s the motto on the farm.”