A 12-month agri-technology collaboration in the East of Scotland to trial new precision agriculture tools could offer potato growers an effective alternative for random test digs.

The Tuberzone project was able to predict tuber size of seed and salad potatoes and provide an accurate burndown time for growers to maximise yield and profit margin.

SAC Consulting, part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), partnered with precision farming company SoilEssentials and farmer-owned cooperative Grampian Growers to support the uptake of the innovative Tuberzone potato technology among growers from Angus to Aberdeenshire to the Black Isle.

Project facilitator, Zach Reilly of SAC Consulting, said the value of projects like these is working collaboratively with all parties with a vested interest – the growers, the tech providers, the marketing co-op – to develop precision technology that is compelling for growers to adopt long-term.

“The flow of new technology into agriculture is exciting but we need to assure farmers that it will meet their needs. When there are many variables and cost implications it’s important to select tools that are going to help your decision-making and your business’ bottom line," Reilly said.

"Part of SAC Consulting’s role has been to gauge more broadly how much support is required among farmers in taking on digital tools.

"We have gained a lot from this experience and it will help us in future projects as we guide farmers through the adoption of new technologies across all agricultural sectors."

Using a combination of satellite imagery, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and GPS to monitor growth from crop emergence through the growing season to burn down, Tuberzone successfully predicted the graded-out size of Gemson, a salad potato variety owned by Grampian Growers, within 90% accuracy, for the majority of growers.

Due to its dual-purpose characteristics, the balance between the seed fraction (25mm to 55m) of the crop and the proportion useable for the salad market (up to 45mm) is critical for the 29 Grampian Grower members who grow Gemson.

Jim Wilson, managing director of Brechin-based SoilEssentials, said: “The challenge of seed and salad potato production is knowing exactly when to stop the crop growing - a few days either way can make a big difference to the total value of the crop."

Currently, the only method is to make random test digs throughout the season and then weigh and measure the tubers manually. Growers are still strongly advised to carry out test digs, but Tuberzone can make these less frequent and better targeted in the field.

An unexpected bonus of the project was discovering GPS technology could be used to target the best location for test digs. By taking variables into consideration, this gives a more accurate prediction of field-scale yields and allows growers to build up field data for use later in the season and in subsequent years.

Claire Dyce of Grampian Growers, based near Montrose, said: “This has been an excellent outcome of the project, saving second-guessing and it gives much better accuracy for growers to base decisions on. Obviously, as a cooperative, our ethos is to work together and we’ve been very impressed at both the running and the outcomes of the project, and getting as much as we can from the project for the growers.”

The predictive calculations can be made by Tuberzone once emerged plant numbers and the rate of canopy development are combined with data on the soils across the field and the supply of water during the growing season.

The raw data is not enough on its own, however, and it has to be stored and evaluated. Central to the KTIF project, funded by Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP), has been for growers to learn how to input information to SoilEssentials’ cloud-based system and to retrieve meaningful results.