Taking precision agriculture to the next level
By Carolyn King
Many western Canadian farmers are already using precision farming tools, such as global positioning systems (GPS), geographic information systems (GIS), auto-steering, and yield monitors. Such tools open the door to exciting opportunities to enhance farming operations. One such opportunity is to use these tools in conducting on-farm research. To capture that opportunity, applied research associations are working with co-operating producers across Alberta in a three-year project.
“We have traditionally done small plot research; in this project, we’re breaking new ground. We want to get a better understanding of how to conduct field-scale studies, so we can help producers to undertake on-farm research and be confident in the results,” says Dr. Ty Faechner. He is leading the project, which is called “Precision Tools for On-Farm Research.”
Faechner is the executive director of the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA). This not-for-profit organization works with producers to improve their operations through field research and technology. ARECA currently has 15 member associations; each association conducts applied research and extension relevant to the producers in its region.
When the project started back in 2009, ARECA knew that farmers were interested in conducting on-farm research to test how new practices and technologies would work on their own farms. ARECA was also aware of the rapidly growing interest in precision agriculture tools.
Faechner explains: “In a recent five-year program, the federal government had provided [cost-sharing] assistance for farmers to purchase GPS guidance, yield monitors and mapping software. Under the program, Alberta farmers spent around $29 million to buy that kind of equipment. So we knew there was lots of commitment financially by Alberta farmers to become engaged with precision farming equipment. They were using it for things like auto-steering, but there is also a great opportunity to take it further – to use it for collecting information, optimizing inputs, and things like that – and that wasn’t necessarily being done. We wanted to determine how farmers interested in conducting field-scale research might go about doing it with the help of precision agriculture tools.”
The project involved more than 14 producers from Lethbridge to Fort Vermilion working with agronomic staff from the applied research association in their own area. Together they conducted field-scale experiments on nitrogen response in canola and phosphorus response in peas. For canola, they compared 50, 100 and 150 percent of the recommended nitrogen rate for the field. For peas, the treatments were: no inoculant or phosphorus; inoculant; inoculant plus phosphorus; TagTeam; and TagTeam plus phosphorus.
The participating farmers received training in precision agriculture concepts, and they used on-combine yield monitors to measure crop yield for each of the treatments. The yield monitor data was validated with weigh wagon data, the traditional way to measure yields from field-scale plots.
Findings so far
ARECA will be wrapping up the project this winter and sharing the results and conclusions with the co-operators, the farming public, and the project partners/funders, which include the Alberta Pulse Growers, Alberta Canola Producers Commission, Novozymes (which produces TagTeam) and the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund.
“This project is giving us a much better understanding of some of the benefits and challenges of on-farm research. It’s also giving us a better understanding of how to implement on-farm experimentation and testing, of better ways to work with producers and conduct field research in a cost-effective way,” says Faechner.
Perhaps the most important finding so far is that effective on-farm research involves a team approach. He notes, “On-farm research takes three types of expertise: knowledge specific to the farm; agronomic knowledge; and research design and data analysis skills. Although some producers are able to do all this on their own, in most circumstances it’s a team effort. Typically the producer works with two or perhaps three people, to ensure the study is designed and managed properly and the data analyzed effectively, so the results will be reliable.”
Opening other doors to the potential of precision
Over the last few years, ARECA has been busy with several other initiatives also aimed at helping Alberta farmers to take full advantage of the potential of precision agriculture, particularly in the area of variable rate technologies (VRTs).
For instance, ARECA and its member associations offered a series of VRT workshops for farmers during the winter of 2009/10 and 2010/11. ARECA also produced a basic manual and an advanced manual on precision farming and VRT as information resources for those workshops. Both manuals are available for free on the ARECA website (www.areca.ab.ca).
Another recent ARECA initiative was a VRT economics study. Dennis Dey, an economist, compared the use of variable and constant fertilizer rates in a variety of fields in central Alberta in 2009 and 2010. Faechner says, “The results showed that in some fields you could gain significant economic advantages with variable rates, but in other fields there wasn’t a clear advantage. One of the key factors affecting that is the amount of variability in your field. VRT will have a greater advantage in a field with lots of variation than in a more uniform field.
“What we also learned was the importance of looking at VRT from a whole-farm perspective. People are always wondering whether they should invest in this kind of thing. When you consider it on a whole-farm basis, I think you can strongly make the case that your investment in the technology and the effort you put into it would be repaid, although it may take three to five years.”
Next up on its precision agriculture roster, ARECA will be hosting the Precision Ag 2.0: The Next Generation conference and trade show in Calgary on February 22 and 23, 2012. With over 30 speakers, the diverse agenda includes topics ranging from soil variability and soil mapping, to precision software and optical sensors, to conducting on-farm research. More information is available on the conference’s website (www.precision-ag.ca).
All these initiatives are helping Alberta farmers to capture the full potential of precision farming for their own operation. Faechner says, “I think our timing is really good, with more and more producers adopting precision farming tools and wanting to expand their knowledge and skills in this area.”