The Time Is Right for Precision Agriculture Technologies

Precision agriculture technologies have not always been economical for small- to medium-sized farm­ing operations. However, with precision agriculture equipment becoming less expensive, tools such as guidance systems, yield monitors and variable-rate fertilizer applicators may now be profitable for nearly all growers. The rising costs of inputs and higher commodity prices considerably increase the risk of making the wrong management decision. Thus, even small farms can profit from using technologies that improve production efficiency.

Some technologies, like real-time kinematic (RTK) auto-steering, can improve efficiency without changing management practices. Using a GPS-guided steering system can eliminate sprayer overlaps and planter skips that can result in lower profits. The magnitude of savings depends on how well the grower was doing without the guidance system. Considering an example from an Ohio State University Extension article, a grower using row or foam markers on the planter and sprayer, conservatively speaking, might be farming 102 acres in a 100-acre field. This extra area might seem insignificant, but when one considers that two acres translates into spending 2 percent more on all associated inputs such as seed, fertilizer, pesticides, fuel and labor, even small application errors can become quite costly. An RTK guidance system with 1-inch driving accuracy can eliminate this risk.

Despite the fact that yield monitors have been around over a decade, many growers still don’t fully understand how to use them to improve farming efficiency. This lack of knowledge is being actively addressed in a series of extension programs and classroom courses developed at North Carolina State University. This train­ing involves on-farm demonstrations, hands-on classroom training using “Virtual Yield Monitor” custom software, and introduction to spreadsheet-based analysis of yield monitor data, yield-limiting factors, and potential changes in management that could increase yield. Efforts like this provide growers the knowledge needed to fully utilize yield monitor technologies to better manage on-farm spatial variability.

Variable-rate fertilizer applications have been shown to improve efficiency and increase profits in many growers’ fields. Several universities and USDA-ARS research units have developed strategies for using on-the-go, sensor-based applicators to improve fertilizer-use efficiency. Profits have come in the form of increased grain yields without increasing total nutrient inputs or as sustained production at lower input levels. Most of these systems consider both spatial and temporal variability, which can affect production. Current work is focused on incorporating additional layers of data such as real-time weather, soil electrical conductivity, and other spatial information into the processes that determine fertilizer application rates.

Precision management pays more now than ever. Current grain and fertilizer prices greatly increase the value of precision agriculture technologies. The information generated using precision agriculture equipment and the decisions based upon it can help mitigate the growing risk of yield loss.

Source: Dr. Steve Phillips, Southeast Director, International Plant Nutrition Institute, 3118 Rocky Meadows Road, Hampton Cove, AL 35763.

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