Precision Ag in a Tough Season in Australia

This year’s summer crop season has been a tough one for most growers in Australia. Prolonged periods of high temperatures and a distinct lack of in-crop rain in most areas have caused the sky-high expectations at the beginning of the season to come down as the season progressed. On top of this, some areas received rain from cyclone Debbie just as harvesting was about to start, making a mediocre year even worse.

All broad acre summer crops were affected, but some more than others. Most irrigated crops still produced, but did consume a lot more water than usual and yielded less than average. Some mung beans that flowered during the peak of the heatwave were left with little to no pods at all, whereas some early cotton crops in central Queensland were not affected at all and produced great yields. Dryland crops however suffered with very few exceptions; for most crops and in most areas, it is a season to quickly forget.

When a season like this comes along, the topic of precision ag, and the investment therein, gets raised often. So how does a below-average season change the equation? Of course, there is the cash-flow available for investment to consider, which is most likely below par after such a season, but also the premise of precision ag itself. Does it pay to be precise in a marginal season? When a sorghum, cotton or bean crop gets removed from the field by a mulcher instead of a harvester, it is easy to conclude that every dollar spent on previously precision equipment to plant, spray or fertilize this field is wasted in this case. But is it? Or was not enough money invested?

If we look at the first operation in the life-cycle of growing a crop, planting, it is quite obvious from all the new product offerings out there that precision ag is the flavor of the day. And with a very good reason, even in a dry season. When conditions turn dry, plants need every little bit of moisture available within their root zone. Traditionally, we often see growers planting more seeds per meter than they actually need just so they “don’t get those big gaps.” But this automatically means you will also get a lot more seeds placed close together in the majority of the field. This in turn means that there is less moisture available per plant when the field dries out, which affects yield and quality in every scenario.

When a grower plants with precision equipment, he can accurately set his desired rate and be confident that the seeds get placed where he wants them to. So when, for example, a drier-than-average season gets predicted, the sowing rate can be brought down as much as needed, without having to worry about possible large gaps in the plant stand. An added benefit of being able to lower your planting rate is a decrease in seed costs, which for some crops can be quite substantial.

Fertilizing is another such operation that is well-served by adding a layer of precision to the operation. Where traditionally a lot of fertilizer was applied up-front and with a blanket rate, it has been shown to have significant negative effects in a dry season. If the in-crop moisture is missing, the fertilizer goes unused in the best-case scenario, but leaches away or causes nitrogen toxicity to plants in worse scenarios. By applying only part of the fertilizer requirements up front and subsequent applications during the season, the amount applied per zone in the field can be tailored to biomass present, nutrients present in the soil or nutrients measured in plant-tissue, to only name a few methods. Next to potentially saving a lot of money in marginal seasons, this can also save your crop from performing even worse than the dry conditions already dictate.

The need for chemical applications during the season can be vastly different from one end of the field to the other. In-crop herbicides, growth regulators, defoliants and fungicides are just some examples of products which can be required at a different rate, depending on how much moisture (if any) was received in a certain part of the field. By dividing the field up in zones by biomass, rainfall data or even just visual differences, the rate of chemical applied can be altered and tailored to the specific zones.

In some cases you might only have to spray a few zones of the field and the rest of the field is best left unsprayed. By using variable rate (VR) technology, you don’t have to make the difficult decision of whether to spray everything or not at all and by doing so not treat part of the field as it should be treated. You can make the right decision for every zone in the field. Using this methodology can not only save you on input costs, but potentially save parts of your crop as well. A good example is a field of cotton where only 80% needs a growth regulator applied and where the other 20% of the crop would get damaged by having any growth regulator at all applied. VR technology can provide both savings in chemical and save part of your crop in this scenario. Speaks for itself, right?

Where dry seasons are a regular occurrence more specific to Australia than some other parts of the world, the issue of marginally profitable seasons is seen everywhere. Whether it be the low commodity prices currently seen everywhere or a cold snap in the U.S. Midwest, precision ag technology can help growers to lower input costs and maximize their opportunity for profitability.

For more information, feel free to contact me at reinderprins@cgs.com.au.

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