The Time Is Right For Precision Agriculture Technologies

1. Precision agriculture technologies have not always been economical for small to medium-sized farming operations. However, as input costs rise, precision agriculture equipment is becoming less expensive and tools such as guidance systems, yield monitors, and variable-rate fertilizer applicators may now be profitable for nearly all growers.

2. Some technologies, like RTK auto-steering, can improve efficiency without changing management practices. Using a GPS-guided steering system can eliminate sprayer overlaps and planter skips that can result in lower profits. Considering an example from an Ohio State University extension article, a grower using row or foam markers on the planter and sprayer might be farming 102 acres in a 100-acre field. This extra area might not seem significant, but when one considers that this translates into spending 2% more on all associated inputs such as seed, fertilizer, pesticides, fuel, and labor, even small application errors can prove costly. An RTK guidance system with 1-in. driving accuracy can eliminate this risk.

3. Despite the fact that yield monitors have been around over a decade, many growers still don’t fully understand how to use them to improve farming efficiency. This lack of knowledge is being actively addressed in a series of extension programs and classroom courses developed North Carolina State University. This training involves on-farm demonstrations, hands-on classroom training using “Virtual Yield Monitor” custom software, and introduction to spreadsheet-based analysis of yield monitor data, yield-limiting factors, and potential changes in management that could increase yield.

4. Variable-rate fertilizer applications have been shown to improve efficiency and increase profits in many grower fields. Several universities and USDA-ARS research units have developed strategies for using on-the-go sensor-based applicators to improve fertilizer use efficiency. Profits have come in the form of increased grain yields without increasing total nutrient inputs. For production, most of these systems consider spatial and temporal variability. Current work is focused on incorporating additional layers of data that includes real-time weather and soil EC into the processes used to determine fertilizer application rates.

5. Precision management pays now more than ever. Current grain and fertilizer prices greatly increase the value of precision agriculture technologies. The information generated using precision agriculture equipment and the decisions based upon it can help mitigate the growing risk of yield loss. To learn more about precision agriculture technologies, consider attending the 9th International Conference on Precision Agriculture (ICPA) in Denver, Colo., July 20-23, 2008. Dedicated sessions for practitioners entitled “Precision A to Z Tracks” will offer practical advice from the international authorities on key topics of precision agriculture for producers and professionals. Visit the Website: http://www.ipcaonline.org.

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