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Winning farms|10 Jul, 2022

Enabling more targeted fertilization with biomass mapping

WWF Ostseelandwirt des Jahres 2021
Axel Böttcher, Betriebsleiter auf Gut Groß Voigtshagen in der Nähe von Lübeck ist 2021 Gewinner des Wettbewerbs „WWF Ostseelandwirt des Jahres“. Im Wettbewerb werden Landwirte ausgezeichnet die Maßnahmen umsetzen durch die die Einträge von Nährstoffen in die Ostsee reduziert werden. Axel Böttcher, operations manager at Gut Groß Voigtshagen near Lübeck, is the winner of the 2021 competition “WWF Balticsea Farmer of the Year”. The competition honours farmers who implement measures to reduce the nutrient input in the Baltic Sea.

Located seven kilometres from the Baltic Sea where the maritime climate and terminal morainelandscape meet, Gut Groß Voigtshagen has ideal arable conditions that have been prized by farmers for centuries. The earliest mention of the farm can be found in the Ratzeburg tithe register from the year1230. It would later fall into state ownership, then become privatized after 1989. Today, the farm is ownedby Count von Nesselrode who took over in 2001 and has since managed the farm with support from Farm Leader Axel Böttcher and his team of employees.

Consideration for the natural surroundings has been built into the operational model since the start

“We farm with great care and thrift in the use of our resources,” says the Farm Leader Axel. “Our guiding principle could be ‘Ecology is long-term economy,’” he adds.

The farmers have implemented a number of measures to prevent nutrient runoff from their fields, including establishing 20 metre wide buffer strips along all watercourses and field troughs, and planting catch crops. They also take care to apply fertilizer as precisely as possible. A task that can be especially tricky given the changeable weather patterns of the region.

“We farmers always have to make our decisions based on the short and medium-term weather patterns,” says Axel. “The more accurate the forecasts, the lower the risk of misapplication.”

“We have to learn very quickly and adapt our practices, varieties, and crop rotations,” he continues. “If you move to the lower limit with fertilization, then you already risk not only the yield but also the baking quality of the wheat, for example, which logically has an impact on the revenue and thus the company profit. One moves on a narrow path because economic success is also an important aspect of sustainability. The value added in agriculture is not very high, so there is not much room for error.”

“It’s fascinating what you can see from above—drainage problems, soil differences and also structural problems in the soil. Now, the satellite-based biomass maps have been added which gives us new possibilities.”

Targeted fertilization with a bird’s-eye view

The farmers at Gut Groß Voigtshagen have always sought to spread fertilizer site-specifically by varying the amount of fertilizer by hand according to soil type and stand density. In 2018, they began to incorporate a new technical solution that would give them a bird’s eye view and help them accomplish even greater precision.

With the help of biomass maps, the farmers are able to determine site-specific requirements for crop protection and fertilization.

“When I started working on this farm almost 20 years ago, I made an aerial survey of the farm’s land from the Wismar sports airfield,” recalls Axel. “It’s fascinating what you can see from above—drainage problems, soil differences and also structural problems in the soil. Now, the satellite-based biomass maps have been added which gives us new possibilities.”

With help from biomass maps, the farmers are able to determine site-specific requirements for crop protection and fertilization. Then they adjust their fertilizer, seed, and crop protection application rates accordingly. In cooperation with the company ATR Landhandel, they also use a program “skyfld”  to calculate the spring fertilization rate in canola based on the leaf mass at the end of vegetation. From this, they derive the fall nitrogen uptake, which they deduct in the spring.

“All in all, we are concerned with maximum nutrient efficiency,” says Axel. “Fertilizer that is converted into yield by our crops is safe from leaching!” 

Gut Groß Voigtshagen farm is characterized by a great affinity for optimization through modern, digitally supported technologies in both fertilization and crop protection.

In the future, the farmers might even add drones to their toolkit. Axel reports that one of their employeesearned a remote drone pilot license this year.

“I hope that the use of drones in agriculture will offer further interesting possibilities in the future, such as the detection of weed zones for site-specific application of herbicides,” he says.

Storing CO2 with permanent humus

Gut Groß Voigtshagen also participates as a pilot farm in a project that involves binding carbon in the soil by building up humus with the hope of contributing to climate protection by selling certificates to companies.

“Our current crop rotation already has a positive humus balance, but our goal is to improve this further,” says Axel.

To achieve their goal, the farmers are expanding their crop rotation, cultivating catch crops, and using organic fertilizer.

The farmers maintain 20 metre wide buffer strips along all watercourses and field troughs.
In constant search of better solutions

As a result of all their efforts, the nutrient balances at Gut Groß Voigtshagen over the last few years already show a balance well below the limits. Additionally, the farmers report that the farm’s N-balance is about 30% lower than average compared to similar farms.

Yet, the farmers remain active in their ambition to constantly increase their efficiency. They exchange knowledge and ideas with neighboring farmers as well as a consulting ring of around 30 companies.

“When you work in and with nature and have such an important body of water as the Baltic Sea— to which, by the way, we owe the high-yield climate here in Klützer Winkel—virtually on your doorstep, you automatically take an interest,” says Axel. “We know that agriculture is not the only discharger. But we also know that we have our share in eutrophication through nitrogen and phosphorus fertilization. Even though, according to the 2019 HELCOM report, nutrient loads to the Baltic Sea have steadily decreased, we continue to strive to do even better.” 

National winner of the Baltic Sea Farmer of the Year Award 2021

In recognition of the efforts made on Gut Groß Voigtshagen  to reduce nutrient run-off, Axel has been awarded the national Baltic Sea Farmer of the Year Award for Germany.

“It fills all of us in this company with joy and pride,” says Axel. “We feel validated in our efforts to always look for the better solution. It is also a very nice and important complement to our team because new methods also always cause more work and sometimes frustration when things don’t work out right away.”

“The award encourages us to continue on the path we have chosen.”

What advice do you have for other farmers?

“I seriously do not believe that there is even one farmer who would have to start with sustainable agriculture. Sustainability is, as I said, in the genetics of our professional sand! We farmers are too sedentary for that, our planning cycles too long, and the receipt for mistakes in soil cultivation too certain and painful. This issue is an example of the inflationary use of the term sustainability. Nevertheless, every farm has room for improvement. I think it makes a lot of sense and I advise every farmer to dare to look beyond their own farm and engage in an open and honest exchange with professional colleagues, be it through the farmers’ association or an advisory organization.

“My practical advice is this: I can really recommend using the biomass cards. If the technical prerequisites, e.g., at the fertilizer spreader, are not yet given, or a certain (justified) skepticism about the technical implementation prevails, one can also manually process the information provided by these maps as well as the resulting spreading orders.”


Location: Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Landkreis Nordwestmecklenburg, Region Klützer Winkel, Germany  

Type of farm: Conventional crop farm (860 ha)

Main production: Winter wheat, winter barley, spring barley, fieldbeans, winter oilseed rape, silage maize  

Key practices: Protecting soil structure from compaction, catch crops, enriching soil with organic matter, buffer zones, water management,nutrient balance and balanced fertilization, correct timing and conditions for fertilizer application, careful manure application techniques, use of manure in plant production, precision farming, nutrient recycling.

Jury Motivation: “The Gut Groß Voigtshagen farm is characterized by a great affinity for optimization through modern, digitally supported technologies in fertilization and crop protection. The use of biomass maps is a good example of how nutrients can be used in an even more targeted manner and thus also saved. The positive effects on the reduction of nutrient discharges from the farm are complemented by the generously laid out watercourse margins of 20 meters along the watercourses and field troughs. The farm manager Axel Böttcher registers very precisely the developments of the climate, the precipitation and the pest pressure on the crops and tries to incorporate these observations into his farm management via technical and digital innovations. For a farm that operates in an absolutely favorable location and has consistently high-yielding land, Axel Böttcher and his team create a number of positive environmental effects that the jury would like to honor with the award. The farm strives to integrate the neighboring communities and engages in open dialogue with interested parties. ” (Read more)

Axel Böttcher on the future of farming

Q: What do you consider to be the biggest challenges or threats facing farmers today and in the future?

A: I see the biggest challenge facing agriculture in the future as securing food for the world’s growing population. It must be clear to us that every unit of grain that is produced less hangs the global breadbasket a little higher. As a result, more and more people in emerging economies are suffering from hunger, which is one of the biggest drivers of migration.

The greatest threat I see is a restriction of the research and innovation power of economic sectors arising from ideology—unfortunately, this does not only apply to agriculture. We must recognize that our actions have consequences. We should minimize these as far as possible, but we cannot avoid them.  

Q: What are the greatest benefits/opportunities in farming today and in the future?

A: I see the biggest advantage of agriculture as the fact that we produce what is always and first demanded by all people on earth: Food! More and more people have to be fed from a shrinking area. We are forced to look for innovative solutions. This requires the best experts in research and implementation. I say this as the father of three sons who are also very interested in agriculture professionally, the eldest is already in agricultural training.

Q: What kind of support and encouragement do farmers in your region need to adopt and maintain more sustainable practices?

A: The word “sustainable” again! “The land migrates to the better host,” there is a lot of truth in this proverb. The better landlord has everything in mind, he is economically, ecologically and socially more successful. He cares about the well-being of his employees and the village environment. The agricultural sector is very innovative, flexible and yet regionally rooted. The vast majority are family entrepreneurs who think in terms of generations. An entrepreneur who does not think sustainably in every respect will sooner or later disappear from the scene. We farmers are better than our reputation, which has been deliberately damaged by some organizations (due to campaigns).

What does not help, but accelerates the structural change, is the excessive bureaucracy! If everything and anything is prescribed, regulated, documented and controlled, this paralyzes an industry enormously! Regulatory law expresses mistrust; cooperation would be more effective!

Last modified 15/11/23

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