Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Turftrax Group Limited (A66)


  1.1  Turftrax Group Limited welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry on the Future of UK Agriculture: Farming beyond subsidies? We recognise that the Committee has now considered the majority of the evidence that has been submitted to it and are therefore grateful to be given the opportunity to submit at this late stage. Our submission will focus on the role that TurfTrax believes it can play in promoting better stewardship of agricultural land.

  1.2  TurfTrax Group Limited is a high technology business which was formed in 1997 to provide solutions, through the application of new technologies, for improved soil management practices in both agriculture and sports. TurfTrax is constantly investing in research and development for the improvement and advancement of our technologies. As part of this effort, TurfTrax has established a formal working relationship with Cranfield University, one of the pre-eminent universities in soil science.

  1.3  TurfTrax Group Limited believes that improved soil management practices and techniques, developed through the application of new technologies, can lead to cost savings to farmers, significant environmental benefits, and can contribute to the long-term sustainability of the UK farming sector.

  1.4  It has been an accepted fact that the effectiveness of virtually all agricultural inputs is influenced by soil structure and soil texture. However, in recent times precise knowledge and management of soils have been ignored with farmers preferring to homogeneously apply the latest fertilisers and fungicides to their fields which increase crop yields exponentially. But the technological advances in the genetic yield potential of varieties, and the efficacy of fertilisers and fungicides which improved crop yields so significantly, has dramatically slowed over the past five years. As a consequence, TurfTrax Group Limited believes that there is now a strong need to adopt techniques and practices that can improve soil knowledge and management leading to greater profitability, significant environmental benefits, and the long term sustainability of the UK farming sector.


  2.1  The range and mix of soil structures and textures prevalent in the UK is considerable and most farms experience variability in one or both. Historically, such variability was managed by broadly separating different areas with hedges and approaching the cultivation and agronomy of the individual fields on a case by case basis. However, in a modern agricultural economy, cultivating tightly enclosed areas is not practical and we have seen a progressive removal of field boundaries. Advances in seed varieties, agro-chemicals and in the power of agricultural equipment after the Second World War allowed UK farmers to enjoy increasing yields across all their cultivated land. As a consequence, this trend encouraged the accelerated destruction of boundaries with little regard for long term profitability and environmental concerns. However, gains from these sources have slowed and with yields flattening it is now clear that the "one size fits all" approach is increasingly wasteful in terms of the use of resources and the effect on the environment.


  3.1  The technologies and systems devised by TurfTrax have established the capability to measure and define soil structure and texture for each individual farm with outstanding accuracy. Using non-invasive electromagnetic induction (EMI) scanning systems enables the rapid identification of soil variability. This is linked to a satellite positioning system (DGPS) which enables TurfTrax to collect and profile soil data at an intensity of 10,000 sample points per hectare. The richness and quality of the data enables TurfTrax to create management plans and input schedules tailored precisely to the specific and unique requirements of each individual farm. This approach enables the farmer to target applications precisely in line with the requirements of the land and the capacity of the soil to make inputs available to the plant. Inputs and applications which benefit from this approach include ploughing; seed rate; nutrient application; herbicide and pesticide application; compaction management; and drainage and irrigation management.

  3.2  The economic benefits through improved yields, reducing waste and highlighting specific areas more suited for stewardship schemes, far outweigh the costs of operating the system. Further, the process materially reduces or eliminates the adverse environmental effects of excess applications of certain chemicals and fertilisers, resulting in a reduction in problems caused by leaching and "run off" of such substances into water courses.


  4.1  What is being described is the concept of "Precision Farming", which has emerged over the past five years. It is a term given to a method of crop management, where different crop areas within fields are managed independently of each other. "Precision Farming" means that farmers seek to make more informed decisions on the targeting of the application of seed, fertilisers and chemicals. By varying the application rates of inputs at specific points in the field farmers can reduce production costs and improve yield and grain quality. This approach can also reduce or eliminate the adverse environmental effects of excess applications of certain chemicals. At a time when farmers are facing increased financial and environmental pressures "Precision Farming" provides real solutions that can help to overcome these problems.


  5.1  Precision Farming must, however, be underpinned and informed by comprehensive soil mapping. Previous methods aimed at producing an accurate analysis of the infield variation are relatively slow, inaccurate and of only marginal benefit from an economic perspective. In 1997, TurfTrax set out to develop a method that would facilitate a faster, more accurate and detailed measurement of the soil variability in a cost-effective way that could underpin "Precision Farming" techniques. The result was a technological device called MagnaScan, which can scan soil with a unique degree of accuracy down to a depth of 1.2 metres. By using the MagnaScan system, the farmer can precisely assess the soil characteristics and adjust the use of inputs. The system is non-invasive and highly cost effective. The validity of the use of EMI scanning in agriculture was recently reviewed in HGCA (Home Growth Cereals Authority) Project Report 267 published in April 2002 which was the largest ever HGCA funded project investigating the benefits of spatial management using advanced technology systems.


  6.1  TurfTrax believe that it is necessary to go beyond providing the mapped results from a precision scan. Our agronomists provide a fully integrated service which enables the farmer to enjoy the full benefits of "Precision Farming". To this end, TurfTrax provides detailed advice on all the variable inputs associated with the interpretation of the scanned field maps, as well as providing advice on the practical application of these variable inputs.

  6.2  TurfTrax has made substantial investment in the financial and technical resources that enable it to deliver information quickly and accurately. The company has built its own data transfer and logging systems. Scanned EMI data collected from fields anywhere in the world can be transferred immediately through cellular/satellite phone technology to the head office in Bedfordshire, UK. Here the data is processed and analysed and the information sent back to the operator in the form of a map which defines the soil variations in the relevant field. The operator is then able to take soil samples for analysis at precisely targeted positions within the field. Once all the soil texture and nutritional analysis has been completed a comprehensive report is produced detailing nutritional, structural, and agrochemical recommendations for the fields being assessed.

  6.3  A member of the TurfTrax agronomy team presents these recommendations to the farmer, helping to define management zones on the ground. Alternatively, if the farm has invested in "Variable Rate Application" equipment, TurfTrax will provide data in the appropriate format. Once the initial data is collected and maps produced, TurfTrax team members provide updated recommendations year after year.

  6.4  TurfTrax employs some of the UK's leading soil scientists and all TurfTrax staff involved in gathering and interpreting the data on soils, and providing the subsequent advice and recommendations to the farmer are of the highest calibre, in terms of practical farming knowledge and academic achievement.

  6.5  This integrated approach to "Precision Farming", based on detailed soil scanning and the identification and measurement of variables, will continue to be developed by TurfTrax through its comprehensive research and development programme. TurfTrax believes that this approach makes the company unique in the UK and Europe.


  7.1  The TurfTrax system provides specific field and within field detail for the management of inputs, typically seed, fertilisers, agrochemicals, irrigation water, lime and cultivations. All these factors are either directly or indirectly related to the texture and structure of the soil. Knowledge of soils and the use of variable applications can have significant benefits some of which have been demonstrated independently in the HGCA project 267.

Economic + Environmental Advantage
Up to £20/ha
Seed Rate
Economic Advantage
Up to £44/ha
Water Logging
Economic Penalty
Up to £210/ha
P & K
Economic + Environmental Advantage
Up to £60/ha
Economic Advantage
Up to £7/ha
Spreader Calibration
Economic Penalty
Up to £180/ha
Economic Penalty
Up to £70/field

  7.2  In a recent example, the TurfTrax MagnaScan system was used to assess the soil type and structure and to analyse soil samples for phosphate, potassium, and magnesium and for pH levels. This was done in order to determine the correct applications for the next two years' cropping plans at Farm A. Prior to the use of the MagnaScan system, the farmer was planning to apply granular fertiliser at a total (including application) cost of £94.76 per hectare and lime at a cost of £47.27 per hectare. Following the scan, analysis and subsequent recommendations the cost of the new fertiliser programme over the two year period was £22.81 per hectare and the revised lime application cost was £24.76 per hectare. After the cost of delivery of the initial scanning and the agronomy support, the total savings from basic nutrients and lime equated to over £30 per hectare per year. Going forward, TurfTrax will be working with Farm A to identify savings across the full range of inputs and applications.


  8.1  Farmers using advanced technology systems such as TurfTrax MagnaScan have become by default more environmentally friendly whilst aiming to make their businesses more sustainable. By applying inputs with sensitivity and spatially to the requirements of specific soils, some of the following environmental benefits can be attained.

    —  By applying fertilisers such as nitrogen and phosphate spatially and according to the requirement of the crop and the capacity of the soil to hold the nutrients, the leaching risk into water courses is significantly reduced.

    —  Spatial application of pesticides especially IPU (isoproturon) and other residuals can be made to be more effective and araes defined where their use would be unsuitable reducing the risk of pesticide residues.

    —  Defining non-profitable areas reduces operating and input costs. Where these areas are no longer under cultivation they could be put into wildlife conservation areas, again benefiting the environment.

    —  By appropriately using cultivation equipment power consumpton on specific soils, operating costs can be reduced and less fuel emissions produced.

    —  Areas even in organic situations where farm yard manures are spread can be assessed for leaching and run off risks.

  8.2  The use of such technologies will encourage farmers to adopt responsible farming techniques and progress them into a rapid move into the Good Farm Practice policies and objectives set out in the Policy Commission Report, chaired by Sir Don Curry, on the Future of Food and Farming. In particular, we welcome the fact that the Commission has recognised the important role that new technologies can play in the UK farming sector. We believe that the service that TurfTrax is offering is entirely consistent with the key recommendations contained in the report.

9 May 2002

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