Category Archives: Controlled Traffic Systems

In Search of Farm Robots: Ch2 Denmark

This article originally appeared in “The Grower”

A visit to Denmark in search of farm robotics expanded to include wide span tractors, controlled traffic farming, growing Christmas trees and farm nutrient management plans and audits.

Automation of the agricultural sector has EU and government attention and funding. Despite an influx of refugees and workers from Eastern Europe, the focus is filling a labour void in the agricultural sector.

The new USD Tek Centre housing an engineering research group of around 500 people at the University of Southern Denmark (USD) illustrates the investment. 

The Tek Centre at University of Southern Denmark illustrates the investment Europe is making in agritech development

Research institutes, municipalities and government are working on a proposal to turn a nearby commercial airport into a specialised unpiloted aerial system (UAS/UAV) facility.

USD is developing unmanned aerial systems to distribute beneficial insects to grapevines. Ground application results in losses as many beneficials cannot climb to colonise the target plant. The technical hurdle is UAS control – needing to control flight to release the beneficials from 200-500 mm above the canopy.

USD Robotic specialist Kjeld Jensen promotes open source software as key to increasing the pace of development. Having access to standards, stable architecture and software libraries means researchers can focus on new things rather than constantly reinventing the wheel.

An innovation hub in Struer was established in a facility donated by Ericsson Communications when they shifted research and development from Denmark. It is now home to about 150 technologists in a number of start-up companies.

Resident ConPleks Innovation develops automation technology for other manufacturers (for example Intelligent Marking and MinkPapir). The availability of such support makes it much easier for traditional companies to enter the field of robotics. 

At the Agro Food Park in Aarhus, AgroIntelli has a focus on autonomy for weed control in organic productions systems, a movement apparently stronger in Europe than in New Zealand. This start-up grew out of a disbanded Kongskilde R&D group.

Safety of unmanned systems is critical. All the above are involved in “SAFE”, a project that brings together major agricultural machinery manufacturers and universities to develop advanced sensors, perception algorithms, rational behaviours for semi-automated tractors and implements and finally autonomous robots.

Hans Henrik Pedersen is well known to LandWISE members for his work on controlled traffic farming and gantry tractors. At Kjeldahl Farms on Samso we saw the prototype 9m ASA-Lift gantry. At 20+tonnes plus another 20+ tonnes with a hopper of onions it’s not a small machine. It seems version two will be different, but development funding is yet to be found.

The ASA-Lift 9m wide span gantry tractor at Kjeldahl Farms

At the Aarhus Agro Food Park Dan Bloomer delivered a presentation on Precision Agriculture in New Zealand to 70 Dutch agronomists and agrichem representatives touring Denmark. An afternoon field trip visited a biogas generator on a dairy farm and a facility for high quality Christmas tree production.

Specialist equipment for commercial production of Christmas trees fits narrow rows and automates labour intensive tasks

Other presentations covered the operation of SEGES, a farmer owned agricultural research and extension organisation performing more than 1,000 field trials every year in partnership with universities, government departments, businesses and trade associations.

SEGES covers all aspects of farming and farm management – from crop production, the environment, livestock farming and organic production to finance, tax legislation, IT architecture, accounting, HR, training and conservation.

A lot of work involves nutrient management. Denmark introduced nitrogen regulations in 1994. We are only now at a similar position. Caps introduced to stop leaching halved losses by 2014 by which time the nitrogen cap was about 25% lower than the economic optimum.  With most benefit coming from improved handling of animal manures, the cap is now being lifted.

All Danish farmers must have nutrient management plans with budgets and fertiliser purchase documentation and application records. They are must report annually, work mostly being done by about 3,500 consultants. All fertiliser sales are reported to the Environment Agency so farm reports can be audited.

Dan’s travel was supported by a Trimble Foundation Study Grant

Investigating variability in potato crops

Sarah SintonLandWISE 2016 Conference presenter Sarah Sinton is a well experienced member of a Plant and Food Research group studying potatoes.

In the 2012-13 growing season the Plant and Food researchers surveyed commercial potato crops in Canterbury and confirmed grower concerns that a “yield plateau” of approximately 60 t/ha was common.  At this level, potato growing is becoming uneconomic.

Plant and Food Research computer-based modelling shows that yields of 90 t/ha (paid yield) are theoretically possible in the surveyed paddocks in most years. This shows a “yield gap” of about 30 t/ha.

The most important factors found to be reducing yield were soil compaction, the soil-borne diseases Rhizoctonia stem canker and Spongospora root galls.

Tuber health, disease management, soil compaction and irrigation all have ability to reduce yields

Using CORE funding, Sarah and colleagues have been running a number of related trials, comparing field performance with modeled potential growth rates. They’ve used DNA to assess soil pathogens, applied a range of treatments and measured disease incidence and yields. They have also looked at the role of seed quality in potato emergence, variability and yield.

But it is not all about diseases. Soil compaction, structure and related issues such as aeration, drainage and water-holding show up as crop limiting factors.  Also implicated are irrigation management and weeds.

Potatoes NZ reports that the use of guidance technology and variable rate application based on soil testing is being undertaken but there is limited crop based management of inputs.  There may be opportunity to manipulate some inputs.

In paddock variability can be relatively easily identified using remote sensing equipment (both NDVI and Infrared) but there are three major problems with potatoes which are:

  • Remote sensing can identify differences in a paddock but these need to be ground truthed to determine what the reason for the difference is – e.g. canopy disease etc.
  • Often by the time a difference is apparent on a crop sensor map, even when it is ground truthed, growers cannot implement a management decision that will change the crop performance.
  • Yield maps are generally used as the baseline reference for Precision Agriculture and this is difficult and expensive to implement for potatoes.

Sarah is presenting some of her group’s work at LandWISE 2016. Look for “Investigating variability in potatoes”.

Trans-Tasman Grower Day

Looking for answers - LandWISE 2015
Looking for answers – LandWISE 2015

What’s the Trans-Tasman Day about?

Given there are two dozen top Australian growers, agronomists and researchers joining us for our conference, arranging more time to discuss issues of interest was too good an opportunity to pass up.

The programme for the day is less structured than a normal conference day.  The morning is inside discussion, the afternoon getting out and about. But it does follow two days of conference, so we’ll be well primed.

We will spend time discussing some key crops – onions and potatoes included – and importantly technologies we can use to better understand and manage them.

We aim to identify areas of common interest and possible collaboration. What topics are relevant in both countries? What joint research opportunities are there? Where to from here?

After lunch we travel to a local farm, True Earth Organics, where Scott and Vicki Lawson and staff grow and pack a range of field, vegetable and berry crops. From there we go to a local major vegetable processing factory to view the next stage in the value chain.

Register here>


Excellent LandWISE 2016 Conference Speakers

We published the list and short biographies of our invited speakers today. We are again privileged to have an extremely knowledgeable group representing farmers, technologists and researchers from both sides of the Tasman Sea.

Conference keynotes and new LandWISE Australians include Ian Layden and Julie O’Halloran, precision horticulture researchers and extension specialists from the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF).

Ian and Julie are leading a group of two dozen top growers and agronomists for a week of related events built around the LandWISE Conference. Queensland farmer Ben Moore and Tasmanian farmer Robbie Tole will present their own experiences investigating precision horticulture opportunities.

Returning LandWISE Australians are Tristan Perez from Queensland University of Technology and John McPhee from the University of Tasmania. Tristan will update us on progress with weeding robot AgBot II and Harvey the capsicum picker. John will tell us about precision horticulture research underway in Tasmania.

Parallel work is being done in New Zealand. Look for reports from  Plant and Food researchers Sarah Sinton, Paul Johnstone and long serving LandWISE Board member Bruce Searle. Chris Smith from AgriOptics, Jane Adams of OnionsNZ and LandWISE’s Dan Bloomer and Justin Pishief will overlay a series of precision cropping and related topics.  Charles Merfield from the Future Farming Centre will give a review of biostimulants and related technologies – a different aspect of the agritech revolution.

Rounding out Day 1 are agritech accelerator Sprout Entrepreneur in Residence Stu Bradbury and two accelerating companies represented by Tom Rivett and Julian McCurdy.

Day 2 has a focus on value from data and robotics. We hear a lot about “big data” and “value chains”: what are they? Alistair Mowat, James Beech and Megan Cushnahan will tell us how they and others are getting real value, and where there’s still value to be tapped. Roger Williams will outline how Plant and Food is investing in digital horticulture research.

Lincoln Agritech’s Armin Werner has been a regular attendee at LandWISE. This year he takes the stage with a global review of field robotics and weeding technologies in particular. Kit Wong will tell us about Callaghan Innovation development of systems for machine vision to manage onion crops.

David Herries of Interpine will take us to a different sector and explain how UAVs are giving value in forest research and management.  And rounding it all up, Simon Morris of ALtus UAS will make sure we understand the regulations governing our use of this still new but very powerful technology.

So come to LandWISE 2016: the value of smart farming. Have you mind expanded, your knowledge updated and your excitement kindled. Mix and mingle with leaders in farming, agronomy and agtech!

Conference programme here>

Speaker biographies here>

Conference registration here>


Winter Cover Crops Established

This winter we have established both Caliente Mustard and Oats in paddocks 1 and 2, the site of our last two years of summer onions.

Oats and Mustard well established 12 days after drilling

The ground had not had onions before 2014-2015 as far as we know. We grew our second crop in succession in 2015-2016.

Our plan is to grow onions for a third year, and to pay attention to the development of weeds, pests and diseases. Plant and Food Research reported some evidence of “Pink Root” in a few plants while harvesting samples of the 2015-2016 crop.

After harvest, Gerry and John Steenkamer ripped the beds, leaving the wheel tracks. This is step 1 of a route into permanent bed cropping at the MicroFarm.

Unfortunately, the alignment of the main AB line for the entire block did not match the buried drip irrigation installed some years ago, and it has been damaged beyond repair.

Mike Kettle Contracting drilling oats and mustard
Mike Kettle Contracting drilling oats and mustard

After ripping, Mike Kettle Contracting power harrowed the paddocks to about 100mm to reduce the rubbley surface. The Caliente and Oats were drilled by Kettle Contracting on 16 March.

We chose a split-paddock planting, with Caliente on the northern side and oats on the south. This repeats last winter’s pattern, so we will have two years of onions followed by either Caliente or Oats when we establish the 2016-2017 crop.

Caliente emerging on 23 March, 7 days after planting
Oats emerging on 23 March, 7 days after planting

Many thanks to True Earth Organics for supplying the Caliente seed, and to G & J Steenkamer and Mike Kettle for groundwork and drilling.


Testing On-Farm Fertiliser Spreading

LandWISE 2015 Presenter, Dan Bloomer

Dan is the Manager of LandWISE Inc, an independent consultant, and a member of the Precision Agriculture Association of New Zealand Executive.

The SFF “On-Farm Fertiliser Applicator Calibration” project arose from repeated requests by farmers for a quick and simple way to check performance of fertiliser spreading by themselves or contractors.  They wanted to know that spreading was acceptable.

A calibration check includes assessment and correcting of both application rate (kg/ha) and uniformity (CV). Farmers indicate determining the rate is reasonably easy and commonly done. Very few report completing any form of uniformity assessment.

There are many protocols internationally relating to the spreading of fertiliser products. Lawrence (2007) compared six test methods.

1400 tray matrix used to collect 18 simultaneous transverse tests on a Transpread “W” twin chain spreader From Lawrence, 2006
1400 tray matrix used to collect 18 simultaneous transverse tests on a Transpread “W” twin chain spreader, From Lawrence, 2006

Most used 0.5 m trays organised in a single transverse row to capture the spread pattern of the spreader. No account is taken of the longitudinal variation between individual rows when multiple tests are carried out.

Larwnce Comparisons

The results of the test are given as the bout width where the coefficient of variation (CV) does not exceed a specified level. In all cases the maximum allowable CV is 15% for nitrogenous fertilisers and 25% for low analysis fertilisers.

An On-Farm Protocol

There is no set method dor assessing uniformity. On-farm testing could use a set number of collectors per swath (spacing changes with swath width) or a set spacing between containers (container number varies with swath width). Farmers can decide.

There are however some important principles:

  • Uniformity requires collection of samples from a spreading event and calculation of a uniformity value.
  • Set equipment up correctly according to manufacturer’s instructions
  • Ensure the spreader is horizontal, and at the correct height off the ground
  • Use standard test trays, given the need for baffling to stop fertiliser bouncing out
  • Ensure the spreader is driven well past the trays to capture all fertiliser
  • If a larger sample is wanted, two or more runs at the chosen application rate should be made rather than applying a higher rate.
Set equipment up correctly according to manufacturer’s instructions
A line of trays laid out across the full width of spread to catch fertiliser. Use standard test trays, given the need for baffling to stop fertiliser bouncing out

Weighing samples is complicated by the very small quantities involved – often a single prill in the outer containers. Scales weighing to 0.01g are required, but satisfactory options are readily available at reasonable price.

An alternative is to assess the volume of fertiliser captured in each tray. Disposable syringe bodies make good measuring cylinders.

Disposable syringe bodies make good measuring cylinders

Determining a field uniformity will involve either physical or theoretical over-lapping of adjacent swaths.

Determining a field uniformity will involve either physical or theoretical over-lapping of adjacent swaths

On-line software is being developed to process data and generate statistical reports. Key outputs will be measured application rate, the CV at the specified bout width and the bout width range at which CV is within accepted limits.

Test spread-pattern checks performed to date show there is a need for wider testing by farmers. Unacceptable CVs and incorrect application rates are not unusual.


There remains some question about the percentage of fertiliser caught in some types of tray

The SFF project is co-funded by the Foundation for Arable Research and the Fertiliser Association




LandWISE 2014 Event update

Ever Better: Farmers, land and water

Awapuni Function Centre, Palmerston North. 21-22 May 2014

Just two days to go to LandWISE 2014! The final programme and some tasters of individual presentations are on the website.

In a change to previous years, our “outdoor session” on Day 2 includes a bus tour of a small catchment with intensive land use – vegetable cropping and dairy farming – and a regionally significant lake. This will be in the middle of the day, with buses returning to the conference venue for the final afternoon presentations and panel discussion.

We have a focus on farm plans to avoid or minimise off-farm impacts, especially from sediments and nutrients. This is a critical issue now, and farmers need to understand how new expectations may affect their day to day activities.

Register hereSponsorSheet64

Many thanks to our Conference Sponsors and the many speakers and others who bring you this opportunity. We especially thank our Platinum Sponsors, BASF Crop Protection, AGMARDT and John Deere.

Please pass this message on to your friends and colleagues you believe would gain benefit from attending.

CTF Vegetables – updates

John McPhee

John McPheeJohn is a researcher in the Vegetable Centre of the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture.  John has long experience working with farmers to develop systems to care for soil, save time and energy, and grow good crops.

John addressed LandWISE in 2009. Five years later he is returning to share experiences and update us on developments in Tasmania, across Australia and around the world. He will discuss steps farmers can make as they move towards seasonal controlled traffic farming and full controlled traffic farming in mixed vegetable production systems.

John will show examples of machinery and discuss some of the challenges of CTF when a range of crops is compounded with livestock in the system. However, he shows the economics stack up and the soil benefits are real.

Chris Butler

Chris_ButlerChris has also addressed previous LandWISE events. He recently returned to SnapFresh Foods to grow salad crops in South Auckland. He will discuss the implications of reverting from controlled traffic farming back to random trafficking. He has seen very significant soil changes, and increases in machinery and energy requirements, water ponding and costs.

Chris has considerable experience setting up controlled traffic farming systems, having worked with David Clark to introduce CTF ofr maize in Gisborne, and growing salads on sands in Rangiriri and volcanic clays in Mangere.

John and Chris are presenters at LandWISE 2014 – Ever Better: Farmers, land and water.


MicroFarm Open Day 3-5pm 2 April 2014

Ballance web150  BASF web  CLAW-light-150

The second MicroFarm Open Day date will focus on beans, sweetcorn and water management.

Bean planting P6 Airey 3 web

Bean planting – Richard Airey picture

The green beans are destined for McCain Foods Hastings plant. The four micropaddocks include demonstrations of:

  • Two row spacings 20″ and 15″
  • Four plant populations
  • Different varieties
  • Drip vs spray irrigation
  • Phosphorus: non vs normal vs double rate
  • Herbicide management variations

Sweetcorn demonstrations

  • Strip-till
  • No irrigation
  • Drip irrigation
  • Very late spray irrigation

Irrigation discussion

  • Soil monitoring records from 2013-2014 crops
  • Where crops are getting water from
  • Impact of drought stress
  • Cost of drought stress

More details on the MicroFarm website

Many thanks to:

Ballance AgriNutrients, BASF Crop Protection, Centre for Land and Water, ThinkWater, Netafim, HydroServices, McCain Foods, FruitFed Supplies, Agronica NZ, Nicolle Contracting, Te Mata Contractors, Drumpeel Farms, Agnew Hort, Greville Ground Spraying, True Earth Organics, Tasman Harvesting, Plant & Food Research and Peracto Research for support with this work.

In search of best practice

The LandWISE MicroFarm in Hastings is an attempt to discover and apply best practice for cropping. Our aim to maximise production while minimising the environmental footprint.

We believe the soil has amazing abilities to grow and restore itself if we avoid compaction and over-working. So we want to minimise the area we drive on and do whatever operations are needed at the best time with least structural impact. 

We have seen time and time again that controlled traffic systems provide good “roads” to drive on and good gardens to grow in. But are they realistic in a typical process crop regime?


We can start by avoiding unnecessary traffic. Trucks can be particularly damaging

At the MicroFarm, this season started with six paddocks of vining peas for McCain Foods; early peas in early September, late peas in late October. They were followed by four paddocks of green beans and two of sweetcorn.

In September the soil was at field capacity, and it was raining.  The forecast promised showers or rain every day for a week. Thankfully, we got the pasture sprayed out while it was a bit drier, though even then the tractor and spray trailer left visible tracks.

Our paddocks are part of the overall “grand plan”. The planners at the factory worked out their through-flow needs on a daily basis. The field staff worked out how many hectares to plant each day. We need to plant when the schedule dictates. The alternative may be less attractive.

Think about risks. The basic idea behind risk assessment is to combine assessments of hazards with assessments of probability that the event will occur.  A serious hazard with a high probability of occurring is assigned the highest priority for risk management.

At planting time the average grower is facing many risks, and constantly ranking them in their mind, even if informally. “Not getting a crop planted” might rate higher than “avoiding a bit of compaction”. So we are going to plant. And there is a high risk of soil compaction.

What can we do to reduce the impact of the hazard, to reduce the likelihood of it happening, or to reduce its severity if it does?  


Conventional tractor set up can have a lot of ground:tyre contact and a lot more from drills and other equipment

The key is planning ahead, and taking sensible steps well in advance of the problem arising. We can plan for this when we have a less stressful period, install drainage in a quieter time, and plan a reduced wheeling strategy well before the season even starts.  

We can plan drainage to keep excess water off the paddocks and remove excess water in a timely way. That should reduce the likelihood and severity of damage.

We can ensure our soil is in the best condition possible. That will increase infiltration and drainage rates removing water faster and make it structurally stronger to carry traffic. We can put only essential wheels on only the minimum area of paddock. That will reduce the damage area.  

We could remediate. We could aerate after planting to remove compaction, get air back into the rootzone and give the roots a chance to penetrate. That won’t reduce the compaction, but at some financial cost it will help remove it.  And the soil is too wet anyway.

Last season we visited minimum tillage sites after operations in sub-optimal conditions. We were very pleasantly impressed at how little damage these paddocks suffered.

We’ll still have to tidy up if we make a mess, but we’ll have to do it less often and more easily.

This posting first appeared as an article in “The Grower” magazine