The past few years have seen manufacturing companies jump aboard the digital or precision farming train with promises of how their various apps and systems are going to transform the grind of milking cows or growing crops.

Many of the products are indeed impressive, but the actual take-up by farmers, here in Ireland at least, has not been quite so dramatic, although the sudden enthusiasm for satellite guidance as fertiliser prices doubled has expediated the process.

Early adopters

However, as always, there are the pioneers who appreciate the potential of new technologies and eagerly adopt that which is available for their own situation.

One such Enterprise is the Flynn family farm of Swords Co. Dublin, although it might be best described as a series of farming operations which gel together to create an impressive company which continues to grow,

Paud Flynn and sons early potatoes
Paud Flynn & Sons have worked hard over the years to build a quality brand image for its early and chipping potatoes

In all, there are eight family members involved in the management of the various entities with the main thrust of the business being that of growing early potatoes.

The potatoes are grown, marketed and distributed by themselves under the brand name, Paud Flynn & Sons with the produce being sold through independent retailers throughout Ireland.

The Flynn fleet

When they are not growing potatoes they are growing cereals, both on their own ground and as break crops for other vegetable producers in the area, thus they don’t farm a fixed area, it varies from year to year.

To give some idea of the size of the operation, they have a fleet of 16 tractors which are almost exclusively John Deeres, although a couple of older Massey Fergusons still pull the irrigation hoses around the fields.

John Deere Paud Flynn
The year for each field starts with drilling by a fully ISOBUS controlled 6m low draught disc drill

Managing this fleet is just the sort of task that John Deere has catered for in its software offerings, which the company refers to as its Smart Farming suite.

To the newcomer, the proliferation of various devices and systems out there on the market is little more than a jungle of confusion.

The manufacturers must carry some of the responsibility for this for they have tended to rush ahead ahead with all the latest gizmos without pausing to explain the overall plan.

Satellite navigation is first step

There is, thankfully, creeping into the fray, a recognition that we are not all software engineers and John Deere, for one, is starting to rationalise its approach and present precision agriculture as a process rather than an immediate fix.

In its simplest form the components of smart farming can be divided into two, items for collecting and transmitting data, and items for computing and displaying data.

Starfire at Flynn farms
The Starfire receiver is mounted on the roof of every machine that is working in the field

At the core of all systems of whatever make is the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receiver, often referred to as GPS, although the American GPS system is now just one of several satellite arrays enabling guidance.

It is this unit which fixes the tractors position at regular time intervals and this forms the framework from which all other data is hung.

John Deere calls its satellite receivers Starfire, which are demountable units that locate onto the roof of the tractor. They are also the items that are prone to be stolen, unless locked away at night.

Dealing with the data in precision farming

This basic time and position data needs to be processed, recorded and displayed, which is the job of the rather misleadingly named ‘screen’. It is better thought of as the central processing unit with integral display.

The screen is the in-tractor interface with the software, and for many farmers it may be enough to have the GNSS receiver and the screen for all the basic tasks are covered by them alone.

If records are to be kept, such as application rates, then they may be downloaded onto a USB stick for transferring to the farm PC.

In cab screen on the John Deere
The in-cab screen of the Mazzotti sprayer allows selection of pre-determined mixes

The next step is to do away with the USB stick and transmit the data in real time to the cloud from where it can be downloaded to PCs, mobiles or even other tractors, and this is where the JDLink steps in, it is a two-way radio link to the cloud.

Having arrived in the cloud it becomes part of a growing pool of information about the tractors and the farm itself.

From this pool, information can be then extracted and utilised in whatever way the farmer, or those he has agreed to share the data with, require.

Far more to come with precision farming

To enable this to happen, it needs to be organised and managed, a function performed by the John Deere Operations Centre, where the operations are those of the farmer, not John Deere.

Niall Flynn JD centre
Niall Flynn with the John Deere mobile app, by which, he can access the data and troubleshoot machinery issues

The Flynn fleet is fully kitted out with the whole system and each machine is fitted with a Starfire receiver and JDLink when working in the field, sending real-time data to the cloud where it can be accessed by any of the family at any time.

Paud Flynn john deere control centre
Prescription maps are based on spectral analysis by drone

Running it all is Niall Flynn who is a great advocate of the John Deere installation. He notes that they are already finding it of great use in managing the farm, but he believes they are still only scraping at the potential.

Precision farming is, he said, something that needs to be adopted slowly, great things can be done with it, but it doesn’t happen overnight.

Reducing compaction

Naturally the big items in fleet management are fuel consumption and idle time; these are easily calculated and compared, enabling tractors to be allocated to the tasks where they have shown the greatest efficiency.

Yet Niall is already going beyond these basics and is looking for other ways to use the information being accumulated over the seasons.

Soil compaction is one important parameter where he has found that precision farming can make a difference.

Flynn Mazzotti
The Mazzotti sprayer has a variable track width and so can precisely follow in the path of any previous machine

The fields on the home farm are now accurately mapped and are based on a 24m tramline spacing, a spacing which can be accurately repeated each year.

By doing so, compaction is confined to the same wheel marks which has led to the soil becoming hardened in these strips.

This is obviously not good for growth, but if the damage is restricted to these sacrificial lines every season, then machines can get onto the field earlier than would otherwise have been possible and the area in between remains uncompacted and fertile.

This operates at the tractor level, yet Niall has been able to identify other areas of compaction back in the office through analysing the link arm position of a tractor with a subsoiler.

As a subsoiler is drawn through the field it will rise slightly when encountering hardened soil and it is this movement which is recorded and when displayed will show up areas of greater resistance.

Naturally it works best if the field has a consistent soil type, but it has been able to show the presence of old tramlines and Niall intends to use this tool to reduce overall soil compaction going wherever the system identifies it.

Precision farming here to stay

For the Flynns, the John Deere Precision Farming installation is proving itself a valuable tool in managing the farming operations.

The family has taken it wholeheartedly on board and it has become an integral part of the business.

Drilling down into the detail of every farming operation will not be for everybody despite it being the optimistic scenario painted by the providers of the systems now on the market.

Smart Farming preciion agriculture
Tractor screens can be mirrored on any device that has access to the farmer’s JD Operations Centre. Here the the screen for the Mazzotti sprayer is being shown on the office PC in real-time

Yet, just because precision farming may have been oversold to a certain extent, it doesn’t mean to say that it is not without its benefits or should be dismissed as a gimmick.

It a question of starting with the basics and finding what is useful to each farm and building upon those features.

Increasing accuracy through satellite navigation and autosteer is a start, but as Paud Flynn & Sons are finding out, there is a great deal more it can do as farmers become familiar with its workings.