Visit to SOYL, the largest UK provider of services for precision farming

By Kathrine Hauge Madsen and Bodil Pedersen, SEGES

On 31 May 2017 we met with Rory Geldard, business development manager for SOYL, who took time to discuss their services and business model with us. The meeting took place at the SOYL main office in Newbury.

Why adopt precision farming technologies in Britain?

“There are several reasons for applying precision farming, the main being the need to make every hectare count and maximise its profitability whilst minimising environment impact,” Rory Geldard answered.

How do the SOYL services work for the farmers?

Rory explained how SOYL reach their customers: “Farmers often read about precision agriculture in the newspaper and conclude it’s not for me, which is why SOYL advisors are trained to understand each farm and its challenges and then explain the precision services and show the value of these for the individual farmer,”.   Advisors are placed around the UK close to their customers.

The farmer will usually sign up for a 4 year service starting with mapping the soil by sampling in an intense grid with at least one soil sample location per hectare made up by 16 sub samples.  This costs around £30 per hectare. Repeat soil samples will be taken after 4 years at exactly the same locations to enable comparison and evaluation of the P-K-Mg-pH values and how they have changed; usually the patches with high deficit in e.g. P, will now be less pronounced as the variable soil has become more even in nutrient value.

Following an initial meeting to discuss the farm business and the services SOYL can offer, the correct starting point is agreed. Typically, the SOYL adviser will recommend that the farmer starts out with variable application of P-K-Mg and pH based on the soil samples and fit this into the farmer’s system to enable new variable rate recommendations every year. The farmer may wish to expand the services into variable rate drilling and N-fertilization.

Variable seed drilling is based on conductivity maps of the field in combination with a traditional soil survey (soil cores, measuring texture, stone content and looking at topography) done by the soil scientists. This detailed soil type survey is a one off cost, which never needs to be carried out again. The three farmers we visited were all quite content with the results of variable drilling and found that this service gave a return on investment. One aim of this service is to provide the optimal crop population all over the field, but for some fields heavily infested with the grass weed, black grass, then increasing the seeding density is used as a tool to control the grass weeds.

The third major service is the satellite based variable rate N-fertilization based on a leaf area index (LAI) map.  The LAI map is based on satellite data and calibrations in the crop to estimate the relationship between the satellite recordings and LAI. On average SOYL delivers 15 images from February to the end of May for each customer.  Clouds are a challenge, because the satellite cannot record crop biomass through the clouds. SOYL has developed their own algorithms for winter cereals and winter oilseed rape, which applies more N to thin crop areas early in the season, and reverses it to apply more N to thick crop areas later in the season. The average N level for the field is set by the farmer and the farmers’ independent agronomist.

Using the programmes for VRA

SOYL has developed their own IT platform for field maps and prescription plans. Approx. 30-40 % of customers make their own plans online in collaboration with their SOYL advisors and/or agronomist, but most rely on the plans provided directly from SOYL. If the farmer wishes to make a map for e.g. herbicide application for black grass, then it is possible to make individual prescription maps based on the satellite data.

Some farmers have problems receiving and transferring the file to the control on the farm machinery. To make it easier, there is now an app running on an iPad for farmers who just want to plug in the iPad directly. British farmers sometimes experience problems getting the technical equipment to work therefore SOYL has a hotline of 3-4 technical experts who, in collaboration with the SOYL advisors, try to solve the obstacles as quickly as possible. A room filled with different control panels enables the hotline specialist to go through the different steps with the farmers to solve the technical problem (see photo).

The SOYL headquarters in Newbury The hotline support room with different control panels

Who owns the data?

SOYL stores the data, however the ownership is clear: the farmers own the data that enters SOYL database, and there is currently no external benchmarking system to other similar farmers or fields.  There are a number of multi-layer data analyses in mySOYL so the farmer can benchmark variation and performance on his own farm.

The agronomist and the farmer make the decisions

The agronomist are still the farmer’s main source of agronomic support and are the ones who, in collaboration with the farmer, will evaluate and plan the growing seasons  Andy, one of the farmers we met, explained “our agronomist comes every Wednesday morning and monitors the crop – he will decide chemical rates to be used etc.”

Andy Bason, manager of the Newhouse Farm partnership explaining why he has moved to precision farming. Rory Geldard, business development manager for SOYL, is also the area manager for Newhouse Farm.
Who are the competitors to SOYL in the UK?

There are other companies in the UK providing similar services, e.g. Intelligent Precision Farming (IPF) based in Swindon, Precision Decisions based in York, but SOYL was the first and covers the largest area.

About SOYL (Soil for Optimum Yield Levels)
  • Started approx. 24 years ago
  • SOYL services being used by 4.500 customers on approx. 1 mio. Hectare of arable land (20%)
  • 100 employees
    • 20 area managers who work with the farmer customers
    • 45 field technicians, who takes soil samples, scan fields and assist with technical support
    • 5 R&D
    • 10 data originators
    • 15 making recommendations to the farmers
    • 5 administrative
    • 3 software developers
    • Services are sold in UK, France, New Zealand and Sweden, and the Software-programme is used in Canada, Australia, Russia and Ukraine
  • Owned by Frontier (agricultural merchant business since 2009, previously privately owned)
  • Main office located west of London in Newbury.