Graham Birch: Gold, India &
a Private Education

Issue 101, October 2014

Continued from Page 1

...now equipped with GPS,” he explains, “so we know exactly where in the field the tractor is. If you're spraying a pesticide you don't want to have gaps, so there's a great tendency for the operator to overlap, but with GPS you can be precise and don't have to have overlaps or gaps. That saves fuel, it saves chemicals and it gives you a better outcome.”

Birch overlays the GPS data with live satellite images from space. “You can look at the spectrum of the colour that the satellite's picking up and see whether the crop requires any extra nutrients.” The data is programmed into the tractor fleet, which automatically moderates how much fertiliser or seed to apply in different parts of a field.

“The technology is all designed for other things, it's off-the-shelf in a sense, but the more advanced farmers are using these techniques to optimise inputs and outputs.”

Driverless Tractors

The innovations closely resemble those of Rio Tinto in the Pilbara, where it is using driverless trucks to ruthlessly monitor efficiency from computer banks outside Perth. “They're using the same satellites,” Birch says. “In fact, we put self-steering onto our tractors as well. If you wanted to, you could programme our tractors to drive from our farm to central London.”

Just as innovation in the mining industry has been led by Rio Tinto's giant operations in the Pilbara, or Codelco's sprawling underground copper mines in Chile, Birch is amongst “the first wave” of farms to jump to precision farming. “Smaller farms I suspect will not be able to justify the investment.”

Half dairy and half arable, his business also contains a natural hedge. “It's uncommon to have a large dairy operation and a large arable cropping operation, but I think there is a valuable synergy between the two.” Cow slurry for example is used on silage ground, greatly lowering fertiliser costs.

Milk Prices

“Milk prices are very volatile,” Birch concedes, “and right now the market forces are negative. The global market is quite oversupplied and the supermarkets are in the middle of a massive price war.”

Birch supplies upmarket retailer Marks & Spencer and is paid according to a formula that includes production costs, but says margins are very erratic. “We can be very profitable, as it was in 2011, or unprofitable, as it will be this year.”

Continue

“There’s a lot of risk in today’s market.”

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