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Tradition and modernity

The view to the south stretches far across the rolling fields to the highlands of the Ore Mountains. If you turn your gaze to the northwest, you can just make out the Monument to the Battle of the Nations in Leipzig in the distance, and that is more than 100 km away from the northern edge of the Ore Mountains. We are in Großwaltersdorf in the district of Central Saxony. Here, farmer and contractor Andreas Steier cultivates around 280 ha of his own farmland and another 600 ha for two customers of the affiliated contracting company. We meet him where he likes to be most: in the field! It is autumn, the grain harvest has long since been harvested and the maize harvest is also over.

Andreas Steier is out on his fields to see how the rape has come up and how the catch crops are doing, in this case Phacelia. He also has an almost affectionate relationship with the catch crops, feels the plants, smells them, loosens the soil with a spade to take a look at the roots. Like all the crops Steier grows, the growth of the phacelia gives him information about the quality of his soil.

Andreas Steier is satisfied! Although the drought did not stop at the Ore Mountains region in 2018, his harvest losses were manageable. "We missed about 300 litres of precipitation, yet we only harvested 10% less," explains Andreas Steier. He attributes the reason for the drop in the rapeseed harvest not only to the lack of rain, but above all to the extreme cold in February and March of this year.


N-Sensor: Measure, calculate, fertilise: The N sensor mounted on the tractor roof is used to determine the fertiliser requirement.

Photo: LU Steier

Demanding floors

The soils that Andreas Steier cultivates for his customers and himself are demanding. The areas are located at an average altitude of 510 metres, and the sandy, loamy weathered soils have a very high stoniness. "We get 35 soil points here," says Steier. Special attention is needed to increase yields. For more than ten years, the farmer and contractor has been giving this attention to his soils, but also to his customers' land, in a very intensive way. Steier is particularly fond of the possibilities offered by precision farming. In order to be able to use these possibilities in their entire range, it was first necessary to analyse the soils. For this purpose, a site inventory was carried out in 2007, which included scanning all the fields with an EM38 soil scanner. This was followed by a division of the fields into sampling zones and the GPS-supported collection of soil samples by Agricon.

On the basis of the subsequent analyses, a crop rotation and fertilisation plan as well as electronic spreading maps were drawn up for the respective fields. On the basis of the spreading maps, Andreas Steier was able to carry out precise fertilisation and thus ensure a basic nutrient supply in line with requirements. After four years, this annually repeated procedure has shown its first effects. After eight years, the annual analyses finally showed an almost balanced basic nutrient supply on his land. "At the same time, this laid the foundation for exploiting the possibilities of precision farming more effectively," explains Andreas Steier. These possibilities are continuously developing. In order to not only rely on the variable basic nutrient supply, Andreas Steier invested in an ALS N sensor from Yara back in 2010.


Uses the possibilities of precision farming: Saxon farmer and contractor Andreas Steier.

Photo: Stephan Keppler


Determine nitrogen supply

The system enables the nitrogen supply status of a crop to be recorded quickly and with high spatial resolution. From this, the required amount of fertiliser for the respective sub-area of a field is determined during the pass and applied variably at the same time.

Steier also works in parallel with the N-tester. This device, also from Yara, measures the chlorophyll concentration in the grain leaf. This depends on the nitrogen content of the plant. The measurement is taken directly in the field on at least 30 plants selected at random across the field. From these measured values, the device determines an average value from which the nitrogen fertiliser requirement of the plants is deduced. However, it is only possible to derive a fertiliser recommendation if no other nutrient is deficient and thus influences plant growth. By using the N-tester in conjunction with the associated N-monitoring, the optimal fertilisation time can be determined much more precisely and thus the nitrogen fertilisation as a whole can be made more effective.


Precise analysis

How exactly does the N-Sensor work? The system measures and analyses the sunlight reflected by the plant stand. Different light conditions are compensated for by an additional sensor that measures the incident sunlight. This is necessary to obtain reliable measurements even under changing light conditions. The light captured via the recording is analysed with the help of a spectrometer. The measured values recorded in this way are stored together with the respective GPS position on a data card, on the basis of which the respective nitrogen applications are made. It doesn't sound that complicated in theory, but in practice it is not quite so simple. "Successfully integrating work with the N-sensor into the farm's operations requires an understanding of how it works and the work processes among the employees," says Andreas Steier.

He has introduced the system gradually over the years so as not to overtax his staff and himself. In his view, this cautious approach was the right one. The staff had enough time to grow into the new technology. And they were able to feel that they are not simply operators of the technology, but that they have a decisive share in the success of this technology through the way they operate it.


Building block in the overall concept: Steier also uses the N-tester to determine fertiliser requirements for his cereal crops.

Autumn scan of rape and cereals

Already in autumn, the crops take up a considerable part of the nitrogen from the soil. The growth processes are subject to various influences such as weather, soil condition/quality and nutrient and water availability. Fluctuations in N uptake are not only visually perceptible, but also measurable. This is where the N-sensor comes into play. The N uptake of the crops is measured by means of overrun, and in the case of rape this can fluctuate by orders of magnitude between 35-150 kgN/ha! Even with winter barley, fluctuations of 15-50 kgN/ha are not uncommon. These measured values are stored and serve as the basis for variable nitrogen fertilisation in spring. In the subsequent creation of N scatter maps, the amount of nitrogen taken up in autumn is taken into account, which is of great importance for spring fertilisation from an agronomic point of view and enables site-adapted (variable) N fertilisation.

Coherent overall concept

Although the N-sensor is a decisive component in the overall concept, its full effect can only be realised if all other components also fit. This also includes efficient data management. Here Andreas Steier relies on the web-based data portal Agriport. This programme processes and archives all data recorded by the N-sensor as well as all data related to fertiliser applications. This enables precise monitoring of success.

In order to be able to fertilise and harvest precisely, a precise driving style on the fields is also required. To ensure this, he relies on "Green Star" steering system technology from the manufacturer John Deere for the tractors and combine harvesters. "Precise following during combine harvesting is also the basis for effective bed management, which enables higher threshing outputs. In addition, simultaneous yield mapping is possible, which we use for monitoring success and for readjustment for subsequent fertiliser applications," explains Andreas Steier.


Determine the right time to fertilise: N-monitoring supports this and at the same time makes the data clear.

Increased average yields

The investment in the new technology and the enormous effort involved in its introduction have paid off for Andreas Steier: average yields have risen slightly over the years and have become more stable overall in all crops. Above all, however, Steier is pleased about the significant fertiliser savings. Because the fertiliser is distributed variably and thus in a more targeted manner, less fertiliser has to be applied to the fields overall. "We save between three and 22 kg of nitrogen fertiliser per year and hectare. That is up to 25 % less," he calculates. Another advantage: thanks to the needs-based fertilisation, the stands are more homogeneous overall. Stockpiling in the stands is a thing of the past. This, in turn, leads to a significantly better suitability of the crops for threshing and night threshing. The latter is an important factor for Andreas Steier: "The harvest windows in our region are much shorter than in the lowlands. The threshing crop harvest rarely starts before 15 July, and on average it often lasts until the end of August."

Last but not least, the quality of all crops has increased noticeably. For Steier, this is also a central criterion for the success of his strategy. In addition to rape and winter wheat, which accounted for about half of his total area this year, Steier grows oats, spring barley, winter barley and field beans. The grain is marketed to various malting plants as well as other sectors of the food industry. Here the quality requirements are particularly high.


Convincing arguments

With the sustainable successes on his own land, Steier was also able to convince his two customers of the possibilities of the N-sensor technology. "That was not so easy at first, after all, the technology also has to be paid for," Steier recalls. But he delivered as a farmer what he now promises as a contractor. At the moment, however, it is only for his two regular customers. Should demand continue to rise, contractor Steier can well imagine investing in a second N-sensor. But that is still a pipe dream at the moment.

Despite precision farming, Steier has not lost sight of the basics. "You should not ignore your own skills and experience despite your trust in technology," says Steier. "As a farmer, I am regularly out on my land and see what is happening in the respective crops." Just like on this autumn day on the Phacelia field with the grandiose distant view all the way to the Monument to the Battle of the Nations.

The original article was published in the magazine LOHNUNTERNEHMEN in December 2018.


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