Perspective: Defining Precision Agriculture

If you ask 10 people what is their definition of precision ag, you would probably get that many different answers in return. But I bet you that most would give you a definition that somehow relates to the use of a global positioning system (GPS).

In this case, it is not a wrong answer, but think about this — if there is not a wrong answer to defining precision ag, then there must not be a precise definition of the term.

This sounds like double-talk even to me, and that is why I feel more effort is needed to understand this term we use so freely.

I have been involved with many aspects of agriculture throughout my life, and I have spent my 30-plus year career in what could be called “advanced agriculture” — agricultural electronics, agricultural technology, and yes, even precision agriculture. Sometimes, so much emphasis is placed on the name of a concept that it tends to define only the products or companies that fall within that group.

For example, several years ago, the buzz phrase was “site-specific,” which focused on fertilizer, seed, soil nutrients, and yield. Today the big term is “precision ag,” which has formed its own group using GPS as its focus.

Again, this is not wrong. But it causes many in the world of agriculture to feel left out of what I would term the “precision agriculture circle.” When someone tries to tell me precision agriculture is based on position and accuracy using GPS, I am full of questions for them. I usually ask if they consider both sub-meter guidance and real-time kinematic (RTK) auto-steer forms of precision agriculture. They usually say yes, one is just more accurate than the other.

I then try to take them back a few years, when agriculture was transitioning from visual to mechanical methods of row marking for planting. Then we further evolved from visual to foam markers in an effort to make each swath more accurate for the sprayers and spreaders. I always try to get the person to whom I am talking to see that there were forms of precision agriculture a long time ago, and there will be new forms and ideas as long as there is agriculture.

Precision agriculture can be just a term or a way of life on any farm in North America. Efforts can range from using variable-rate irrigation to making mechanical adjustments of the planter to controlling seed population — or even not planting an area that failed to meet a grower’s yield expectations the year before. All farmers and applicators can and should be a part of this growing “circle” called precision agriculture.

We also need to keep in mind that precision agriculture is not an event that takes place only on the farm. Many times it starts with research and development in the seed, fertilizer, chemical, and equipment companies. The precision agriculture “circle” involves continuous progress, and it doesn’t matter where someone decides to enter the “circle” — as long he or she joins in.

When you really think about it, most people define precision agriculture as what’s happening in high-technology agriculture today. But what we as an industry have learned to call “precision agriculture” is really, more simply, “progress.” The objectives and concepts have been there for many generations in the past and will always be there in future generations.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of PrecisionAg Special Reports.

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