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Need to lower costs renewing interest in precision agriculture

Several practical advancements in precision agriculture are renewing farmers’ interest in the technology, particularly as a way to reduce their production costs.

December 22, 2008  By Blair Andrews

Managing information, not the tools, is the key.

Several practical advancements in precision agriculture are renewing farmers’ interest in the technology, particularly as a way to reduce their production costs.  While precision ag equipment appears to be coming of age, the system has yet to live up to the early expectations of revolutionizing agriculture. The precision farming concept is generally described as having the ability to apply just the right amount of fertilizers and pesticides in the right places in the field at the right time. The precision is achieved by using equipment tied to Global Position System (GPS) satellites. GPS-related tools include yield monitors, light bars and auto-guidance systems.

Auto-steer systems have obvious benefits to spring planting, eliminating overlaps and skips while making it easier for growers to work at night.



The early selling points of the system were increased efficiency, higher yields and improved environmental stewardship. In recent years, the list has grown to include fuel and labour cost savings and, for some, meeting food safety requirements.A quick historyIn the mid-1990s, some of the earliest adoption of precision ag equipment involved yield monitors that were fitted with GPS receivers, giving farmers the ability to record the location of yields and to make yield maps, and grid soil sampling, which showed how nutrients varied across their fields. They could take this information, analyze it and then make management decisions to improve the production of the lower performing areas of their fields. Dr. Bruce Erickson, director of cropping systems management at Purdue University, says there was an initial phase of excitement over precision ag as farmers and agricultural equipment dealers embraced yield mapping and variable rate technology in nutrient applications. The excitement for some, however, turned to disappointment, and the interest “levelled off,” says Erickson. “The disappointment in the yield maps and the variable rate technology is that it was often difficult to relate cause and effect, and these might be very different in different fields or in different years.  Also, there was a level of discomfort for many farmers in the computer technology. Somehow, the yield monitor information or grid sampling data had to come out in map form for it to be utilized.” Erickson says the farmer would then have to analyze the data to determine possible causes and effects, sometimes very easily in the case of a broken tile or an obvious management mistake, but more often it was much more complicated. “And all of those things still haven’t turned a profit for the farmer until it drives a decision. You can collect all the information you want, but if you don’t make a decision to change something, that information is not valuable.” Erickson explains that this part of precision ag was information-intensive, which was quite complex and time consuming for many farmers. “Farmers are busy people; most are managing multiple enterprises and dealing with landowners, employees, and family responsibilities, they may have off-farm commitments such as serving on boards. Most don’t have time to spend hours in front of a computer,” says Erickson. In many cases farmers depended on their crop advisers or input suppliers.

Precision farming is as much a benefit to spray applications, as it is for tillage and planting.


Drawbacks led to frustration
Dale Cowan, general manager of the Agri-Food Laboratories in Guelph, has seen the frustrations associated with precision ag. Cowan, whose company is in the business of analyzing soil, manure and water results, believes the management concept behind precision ag has been lost since it was first introduced. “It’s all about getting the information; it’s not about getting the toys,” says Cowan. “It’s the information you gather, and keeping it in an organized manner so that you can find some opportunities to improve management and make knowledge-based business decisions. That has been the hard part.”The biggest problem, according to Cowan, is the amount of time it takes for most people to maintain an effective database. “There are very few people that have an organized on-farm database, or even agri-business for that matter,  that has been fully scrubbed every year to make sure it is accurate, contains the right information and is consistent. So when you do a normalized yield over five years and look at yield patterns, or the tile, or variety responses over the years, you can do that.”Moreover, frustration sets in because Cowan says most people are not in the position to make the analysis that would help them reap the cost-saving benefits of the technology. “There are an awful lot of guys who have 30 computer cards stacked up with 10 years of field data on it, and they haven’t processed a single file yet,” says Cowan. “GPS technology is great, but this whole idea of precision ag was to be a management concept and we’re not just there.”

The good news
Despite the early disappointment, precision ag is now enjoying a resurgence in interest thanks to the GPS navigation systems. Erickson says the economic benefits of the technology, including auto-guidance on tractors, are more straightforward. Growers can use auto-guidance or light bars to reduce overlaps, which translates into savings on fertilizers, pesticides, fuel and time. “And maybe you could go a little faster, and maybe you could spray at night, whereas you couldn’t before. Those are easy economics,” says Erickson.
The economics, along with the simplicity of the newer precision agriculture equipment, appear to be resonating with farmers. “I have enquiries, daily,” says Jamie McGrail of McGrail Farm Equipment Ltd.,in Chatham-Kent, Ont. McGrail, who has been involved with precision ag equipment through John Deere since 2002, says interest has been growing every year.

McGrail says farmers in all sectors, from cash crop to high-value vegetable producers in her area are utilizing the AutoTrac™ technology. AutoTrac accurately steers the vehicle, allowing the operators to cover more area because they are reducing the overlap in the fields. “I see the hands-free driving from tillage to planting. Farmers are also using the technology on their sprayers because of the continuous spray applications that happen throughout the season. And your fatigue at the end of the day is much less.”

The key with precision farming systems today is the depth of information retrieved and its overall impact on management decisions, both inside and outside the cab.


The future and food safety applications
Echoing Erickson’s comments about working at night, McGrail says the technology can allow people to work during times of low visibility, which could help them take advantage of more ideal conditions. “The window of opportunity to spray may come at odd hours, such as late at night or during the early morning hours for the simple fact that the wind seems to die down during those times.”

McGrail adds that guidance systems offer potential benefits that go beyond pesticide or fertilizer applications.  Noting that the vegetable crop industry is quite labour-intensive, and often farmers have to rely heavily on off-shore labour, she says auto-steering and automatic controls could allow individuals with less experience to operate the equipment.

The growing issue of food safety, while not as obvious as the other applications of precision agriculture, is another area where the technology could make a difference for farmers. “In food safety, you need to document everything you do, and in these systems you do that. What you are spraying, the date, when you were in; when you were out, all of these factors are getting to be more important,” says McGrail.

As more farmers consider precision ag as a way to improve the various aspects their operations, Cowan hopes producers will again become interested in the information-based systems. “There needs to be a dedication to the fact that it is a management system, and to hone your management skills around the idea of this technology.”

Despite the early struggles with the databases, Cowan says the original concept of using GPS to micro-manage fields is paying off for those who took the time to do tasks like detailed soil sampling and to understand the response of their fields to fertilizer and other inputs. “If you look at the price of fertilizer, right now it’s $300 an acre, where it used to be $100. You’re going to be well rewarded for this management time and investment in learning about this technology."


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