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Automatic Steering and GPS Control Make Precision Farming Even More Appealing

In the ’90s city folk and farmers like started paying attention to GPS’s 24 satellites. This technology has a lot of agricultural applications. Land is more scarce and farming is more competitive, so now it’s up to GPS technology to make farming more efficient. This goes for the application of fertilizer, seeds, pesticides or other sprays, and harvests.

How We Got Here

Many companies began testing the applications of GPS farming in the ’90s. At first, tests revolved around certain plots that had previously-established areas of need. Those areas were given special attention in planting, fertilizing, and other treatments. Originally, using precision farming was hoped to improve the economics of farming so that farmers only needed to use what was absolutely necessary for each plant or area of a field. There were too many variable to achieve this aim with much success: erratic weather changes, different farming practices and intricate biology, to name a few. A few farmers attested to the benefits of precision farming, but most couldn’t find a noticeable difference.

Since precision farming couldn’t predictably ensure an increase in profits, farmers have been reluctant to add precision farming that is area-specific to their farm system.

ARMS, the Agricultural Resource Management Survey, produced this data:

Some 18 % of US farmers have been using VRT, or Variable Rate Technology to make their soil more fertile by adding lime, P, N and K to needy areas. Yet that only applied to less than a tenth of America’s corn, and even less of the soybeans in 2001. The telling Purdue study of ’05 showed that precision agriculture didn’t really catch on as expected. This study said:

–         GPS was used on about 37% of America’s yield monitors. Keep in mind that there is around one yield monitor for every 7,500 acres of land of oilseed or grain crops.

–         As of 2001, the latest ARMS survey, precision agriculture was used mostly on yield monitors (36.5 percent), but also on soil maps (25 percent), yield maps (13.7 percent), and remote sensors (3.4 percent).

–         VRTs for pesticide usage is going up. Though it’s trending, it’s not catching on quickly: Less than 3% of the land is treated.

–         VRTs for nitrogen are looking good. The most high tech thing you can do for a farm these days is apply nitrogen in specific parts of a field using precision techniques.

–         There is proof the GPS usage is good for a farmer’s wallet. Another study of auto-guided GPS vehichles was conducted in ’02 and showed that “ DGPS auto guidance will be profitable for a substantial group of Corn Belt farmers in the next few years. This will primarily be growers who are now farming as many acres as they can with a given set of equipment. The initial benefit for many growers will come from being able to expand farm size with the same equipment set. A $15,000 investment in DGPS auto guidance is a relatively inexpensive way to expand equipment capacity by several hundred acres.”

–         Worthy of special note: prices of all this new technology (both software and hardware) continue to decline while their usefulness and efficiency continue to get better.

Huge Increase in Automated and GPS-driven Vehicles

Compared to VRTs, the years between ’99 and ’06 were the days of GPS-driven vehicles. Farmers all over wanted to get their hands on GPS guidance and off the steering wheel, since the technology could be driven accurately down to the inch.

–         This resulted in a very apparent economic benefit for farmers since they were more productive on the land, didn’t need to use as much gas, chemicals or fertilizer, and were simply able to “drive” their machines longer with out getting tired.

–         It helped that these new GPS systems were easy to set up and use.

–         As stated earlier, the cost of the technology is going down.

Farmers all over say that it doesn’t even take a week to see how helpful such GPS units are around the farm. Simply because of this technology, farmers are keen on other kinds of precision farming. The GPS trend is leading to farmers looking into yield monitoring, mapping, rate control and precision placement. On top of all this technology, new data management is being implemented to keep track of field data. This is great for needed mapping of applications and proof of what works according to more and more laws that require such data.

Therefore, the way to spread the word about what precision agriculture was first meant to be, is simply to teach farmers what would benefit them by using a GPS system.

If a farmer can actually notice that GPS is saving him money on gas and time to work, and it is also helping him cover more acres in a day then he will adopt this new technology. When he can see that the GPS technology is leading to more money from his crops, then he’ll make it part of his regular farm management system. Long story short – farmers are quick to upgrade to GPS technology since it has bred confidence that it will improve the economics of any farm by automating every day farming activities.

In the end, it isn’t just an economic reward for the farmers who use GPS technology. Many farmers also report feeling like they are in more control of their farm both economically and operationally.

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