Farmers are nothing if not an innovative lot.
About 20 years ago that innovation and creativity brought about the precision agriculture revolution. Using new technologies, farmers for the first time had data available to them to enhance their decision-making skills, improve their efficiency and boost their yields.
The early years
“Precision agriculture is an information-based management strategy,” explained Viacheslav Adamchuk, associate professor in Biological Systems Engineering Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He explained there are three goals of precision agriculture. First, using these tools and techniques allows producers to optimize their resources to increase the profitability and sustainability of production. Second, they help farmers minimize their impact on environment. And, finally, he said there’s a social aspect to precision agriculture -use of this technology changes the status of farming and agriculture from a labor-intensive job to a profession. These goals haven’t changed since the onset of precision ag, but the tools to reach them have evolved over the years.
Randy Price, Extension engineer with K-State Research and Extension, said those early years of precision agriculture were rudimentary. Farmers were trying to do a crude version of variable rate application using sensor readings to detect pH or yield. They would make maps from those readings and then create a prescription for applying fertilizer or tweaking other crop inputs, he explained. “Most people still aren’t doing too much variable rate spraying, though,” Price said. “Those who do are creating zones using yield maps and overhead photos. They rough draw some zones in and spray; it’s still pretty archaic.”
In the beginning, precision agriculture was also difficult for farmers to adopt because the tools were in the first stages of engineering. Newell Kitchen, a soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, said technologies have been refined after 20 years of testing and engineering, where their sensors are more accurate and packaging is more durable. Precision ag is also becoming more seamless and easier for farmers to install and use.
“We’ve blackboxed a lot of stuff along the way,” Kitchen said. Kitchen works out of the USDA-ARS Cropping System and Water Quality Research Unit in Columbia, Mo. “In the 1990s, farmers, except for those innovators on the front edge, didn’t find it easy to collect data, but they wanted information that was seamless.” Integration of data collection has made the decision-making a lot easier for farmers, and that has improved the adoption of the technology.
“My guess is over the last four to five years we’ve gone from less than 10 percent of many new purchases having some precision ag component to almost 70 to 80 percent at least,” Kitchen said.
“One of the things that has changed a lot is that there are systems out there now that you don’t have to go through multiple steps of collecting samples, making maps, loading those into the truck, driving them to the field and then using them for variable rate application,” added Ken Sudduth, an agricultural engineer at the USDA-ARS unit in Columbia. “Some systems have sensors now on the application rig that can change the rate as you go across the field in real time.” Sudduth remembered a time in the early years of demonstrating precision agriculture tools to farmers when the tractor cab would be stocked with three or four different pieces of electronics, which may not have been able to communicate with each other and were from different manufacturers.
“Today, the integration is in a single package,” Sudduth said. “A single touchscreen can replace a sprayer control panel monitor and GPS. You really only have one piece of hardware and software in the tractor or combine to learn. That’s been a real advantage in trying to get adoption.” Farmers have also seen the immediate benefits of tools such as Autosteer at the end of the day in the field, he added.
“Big strides have been made in collecting data, analyzing it, creating a prescription map and using it to make spray rate changes,” Price said. Automated systems such as auto planter control shutoffs and spray shutoffs control overlap at the edge of booms, he said, and that shows the farmer an immediate payoff.
“They can buy the equipment, turn it on, and it does the job,” he said. Price added, on a precision ag tool like auto shutoff, farmers can see 10 to 20 percent savings in their input costs. “Research data varies but there was a study done on overlap for guidance,” Price said. “The average worker may not be a farmer, and on a 40-foot tool he can be up to four feet off, and using a guidance system can bring that down to one foot or less.”
Tools turn farmers into agronomists
Most important, Kitchen said, is that tools like yield mapping turn the person running the combine into a higher level agronomist. “They turned qualitative feedback into quantitative feedback,” he said. “They see yield is different and they begin to ask a whole lot more questions–why this soil, why this field.” Even if the producer isn’t sure what to do with the data after they get it, they like to have it, he added.
“They want to identify problem areas and try to figure out what is the cause,” Kitchen said. Most work with a consultant, and many take the next steps, such as doing strip trials of new hybrids in the field, he said. He gave an example of a farmer in southwest Missouri who used precision yield mapping to test fertilizer recommendations on a particular field. The yield mapping allowed the farmer to diagnose his soil fertilizer needs better than just following the standard recommendations for his region.
“With higher value crops and more expensive fertilizer, it makes more sense to optimize crop production,” Adamchuk said. “When you are deciding to differentiate inputs according to local needs and potential.”
The future of precision agriculture is promising. More and more young people are choosing to study the field. And, the new generations of students who’ve grown up in the computer age will no doubt advance the field. Sudduth said younger generations are more comfortable embracing technology to help them with their farm work.
“Where the parents of these students would more than likely need to go out and lay eyes on a center pivot to make sure it’s behaving properly, at regular intervals, the younger generation is generally more comfortable with having an error sensor on the pivot with a cellular link and trusting that it will call their cell phone and tell them there’s a problem,” Sudduth said.
“In the last couple of years, when fertilizer tripled in cost, I got a lot of calls from farmers wanting to start their variable rate fertilizer programs because that was one major cost they could save,” Price said. “Most of the students we get, their dads are farmers and they have a use for it on the farm. Others are ones who think they may want to work at a tractor dealership, may sell the equipment and want a general knowledge of what is out there and on the horizon.”
Kitchen said he’s seen the rise of capable crop consultants who aren’t afraid of the technology take on the task of teaching their clients and working with them to crunch data. Those who can offer a package to their clients including precision agriculture methodology can better aid their clients in making production decisions.
“Crop consultants are the biggest help,” Kitchen said. “They will continue to be critical links in seeing precision agriculture technology and science moving up.”
What the future brings
Of course, with new researchers, there will be improvements made in the technology used in precision agriculture. Price predicted GPS capabilities will develop more accuracy. Also, manufacturers will continue their attempts to make their tools more user-friendly, using a push button approach to data collection and collation. This could include wireless communication between machines in the field, such as during harvest, so that the yield data from multiple combines is in one place for the grower, for example.
Adamchuk, who works with the Nebraska Tractor Test Lab, sees a future in integrating different technologies from different companies in a format that’s more intuitive for farmers to use. NTTL recently hosted the 10th annual Agricultural Industry Electronics Foundation ISOBUS Plug Fest, an event to evaluate and analyze how well components from different manufacturers work together.
“We see an increased level of comparability,” he said. “You can have equipment from one company connected to the tractor from another and the instrument from the third company and all can communicate with each other.”
Price also predicted advancements in future use of precision ag tools in irrigation, particularly in places where water resources are critical. Not only could systems control irrigation on areas of the field that need water, but they could monitor the evapotranspiration that day, and maybe use wireless technology to control different sections of the pivot, he said.
Future advancements in precision agriculture will also aim to reduce the stress of farming, whether it’s guidance systems that allow him to monitor the implement more, or steering systems that allow him to shave 15 to 20 minutes off of his field time, Price said.
Ultimately, Kitchen said, precision agriculture will play an even bigger role in production agriculture in the future, especially as we shift our objectives to producing more food on decreasing land areas.
“Getting more out of less inputs,” he said. “There’s going to continue to be a merger of science and genetics with our understanding of spatial characteristics of the landscape to show us why we can grow crops in some areas and why we can’t in others.” Precision agriculture technology and tools will help producers understand and appreciate their soils, rivers and landscapes, he said.
(Source – http://www.hpj.com/archives/2010/jan10/jan18/0108PrecisionAgMACOjmlhm.cfm#.U4bp-PmSwdU)