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30.08.2019 - Manuel Ermann

Precision farming makes our work more efficient

Reinhard Rustler has been farming his two farms in Bavaria and the Czech Republic on a site-specific basis for several years. He relies on regular soil tests by Agricon and has had good experience with the N-Sensor. The graduate farmer is convinced that investments in digital crop production are also worthwhile for smaller farms. We visited him on his farm in the Upper Palatinate.


Mr. Rustler, how did it come about that you not only farm land here in Bavaria, but also in the Czech Republic.

My family bought some land in Cheb about 25 years ago. That's a good ten kilometres from here. When my father Hubert started farming there at that time, the fields were totally neglected and he had to look up on a piece of paper which crop he had grown on which field - if any grain or rape grew at all. The soils had simply been neglected for too long and the high weed pressure combined with the nutrient-poor nature of the land put us to the test. But after an arduous ten years, the fields were once again in a presentable condition. In 2009, I took over the Czech farm "HerHos". I was motivated by my father's successes and wanted to further improve the soil fertility of my fields and thus increase yields. The fields still had a high nutrient demand and partly subterranean pH values. We had to find an economically sensible way to solve these problems.


How did they go about it?

The application of quicklime was one of the first measures I planned for the fields in the Czech Republic. I then estimated how much quicklime I would need to get the pH values of the soils back to an optimum. But that was too imprecise for me. That's why I decided to have soil samples taken so that I could first lime the zones that really needed it. It was also important for me to find out which basic nutrients were missing where. Only with this information is it possible to target deficiencies. During my semester abroad in the USA, I was familiar with the "grid sampling" method. At that time, I was already impressed by this analysis method, as it provides detailed information about the composition and condition of the soil. As a farmer, I needed something descriptive, an overview, so I knew where the bad sections were. A data source that tells me you need x more lime here and y less there to raise soil fertility.

I then went looking for a service provider, because I think it is not very efficient to take soil samples myself. Then my father and I went to the DLG Field Days in Bernburg in 2014. There, at the end of our round, we saw the Agricon stand advertising "fully automated soil sampling". I thought I'd go there and get an offer. I found the staff to be very professional and the advice was really good. That suited me. In autumn 2014, we had our soils tested and shortly afterwards I had these wonderful nutrient distribution maps. I still don't have a GPS-controlled lime spreader, but I do have spreading maps that show me where something is missing or where I can save on quicklime.


Interview partners: Reinhard Rustler and Dr Manuel Ermann

Had you heard of Agricon before the DLG Field Days?

Agricon is not yet so well known here in Bavaria. And if you take a look at the map of where the N-sensors are mainly used in Germany, it is mainly in the new federal states. The farms there are also much larger than elsewhere and the digital technology can be used wonderfully on the large areas. But I think the N-sensor can also generate added value for smaller farms. Here in Bavaria, however, farmers tend to say "Oh, much too expensive!" or "What am I supposed to do with it?". These are absolutely the wrong questions. Sure, the investment costs for an N-sensor seem relatively high at first. But quite honestly? In our region, people don't even bat an eyelid at €120,000 for a slurry tanker, even though it can only apply organic matter constantly. Then it would be better to take the step into precision farming.


Do you own and use an N-sensor today?

My financial advisor asked me a good five years ago which two machines would make the most money. I answered "field sprayer and fertiliser spreader". So if you wanted to optimise something, you had to start right there. Every now and then I had an information brochure from Agricon in my letterbox and the N-Sensor really appealed to me. Again and again I thought "this thing is not bad". A good five years ago, I decided to invest in the N-Sensor and gave myself a wonderful Christmas present when it was delivered on 23 December 2015.

I was already very interested in precision farming during my studies. Unfortunately, however, the general interest was too low at that time and we were only four students who wanted to do more in the direction of digitalisation. Today, the corresponding subjects are totally overcrowded and there is now even a complete degree course on precision farming in North Rhine-Westphalia.

The Rustler family uses the N-Sensor primarily in cereals and rape.

An exciting development...

There has been a lot of hype about the digitalisation of agriculture in recent years. In my opinion, it is nothing new, but the technology has simply developed further over the years. For example, we no longer sow by hand, but use seed drills. We have fertiliser spreaders that can deliver varying amounts. And now we have the N-sensor, which ensures optimal distribution of nitrogen. Because if I only want to fertilise what is really needed, then I reach my limits pretty quickly with my eyes and my experience, with a piece of paper and a pen. But digitalisation by no means means that you can switch off your head or leave everything to the algorithms. It is definitely advisable to check whether one would have fertilised similarly much even without the support of the N-sensor.


Can you please explain that a little bit more?

I use the N-Tester to check the chlorophyll content of my plants. From this, the little tool calculates a fertiliser recommendation, which I find incredibly great. In the first year, my N-tester didn't get above 600 on a few sections, although 700 would have been optimal. At the time, I asked myself whether the fertiliser was too weak here? But in the end, the yields were top. In 2017, I even simply skipped the third application. The recommendation of the N-tester was zero. I couldn't quite believe that at first, so I took some time to check. Knowing my poorer sections, I went back and forth testing the plants. They lacked nothing. Again and again I tested whether the values might not drop and a third dose would be necessary after all. But none of this happened and so I cancelled the dose, which had no negative effect on our harvest.


Let's get back to the N-Sensor. How did the first season go?

The first application of nitrogen has never been a problem for me, because I know my fields. But then the second application comes at some point and with it the question of how much nitrogen fertiliser do I have to apply now? A digital tool like the N-Sensor helps you immensely. It tells you where the plants are already well supplied and where they are not. Sometimes my assessment was almost completely in line with the N-Sensor. I would have spread maybe 10 kg more here and there. Then again, it went up to 80 kg, where I would have given only 50 kg. This irritated me, but the Agricon advisor recommended that I trust the N-sensor and not make any changes. In the end, the average values showed that despite the large fluctuations, less nitrogen fertiliser was used overall than in previous years. That surprised me in a positive way.


What was the situation with nitrogen-related storage?

We have always had bearings well under control. However, the N-sensor helped us to avoid the last remaining lodges in 2016. When we then drove over the fields with the thresher for harvesting, it was already apparent that the yields were much more even. As I said, we had no storage and were therefore finished with the harvest much earlier. So the purchase had already proved positive after the first season.


Autumn scans are also carried out regularly in winter wheat.

Has the autumn scan also proved positive before?

The year before last there was snow here until March. In spring there was also a long period of heavy frost. This literally shaved off our rape, which still looked so good in autumn, so that the N-sensor could no longer measure anything. But we had carried out the autumn scan for the first time at the end of 2017, so we had scatter maps that we could now use for the first application. That was really a stroke of luck and we have been doing the autumn scans regularly ever since.


Do you use agriPORT?

Of course! (laughs) With this programme, I can manage my entire farming operation from anywhere. I simply open my laptop, connect to the internet and start agriPORT. I can then plan and book all my field work and check it later. Today, I can calculate how much lime I need for my fields in the Czech Republic with just a few mouse clicks. It is very important to work intensively with the programme and its modules. Only then can agriPORT be used to the advantage of the farm. I have only been satisfied with everything since I understood how the programme works. I can only advise every farmer to not only deal with the hardware, but also with the software in detail. Don't hesitate, then success will come at some point.


Reinhard Rustler manages his operational processes with agriPORT

What advice can you give to farmers who are interested in an N-sensor?

A certain degree of curiosity, willingness to change and interest in optimisation are definitely prerequisites that the farmer must have in order to be successful in precision farming. Nor is the aim to save fertiliser with Agricon's method. The distribution of nitrogen is optimised, that is important to know. A direct saving only results if too much was applied beforehand. Admittedly, my fields sometimes seem a little brighter than those of the neighbours. But then you have to sit on your hands and keep still. Maybe you go out here and there with the N-tester to see what the numbers say and then keep waiting, for example until it rains. Settlement is always at the shot when you go over it with the thresher and the yields are excellent and the quality is right. Precision farming doesn't take the work away from us, but it makes it more efficient and helps us to farm in a way that conserves resources.


The questions were asked by Dr Manuel Ermann


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