Reetz: Managing Risk With Precision Agriculture

Precision agriculture had been sort of marginal on the cost/benefit decision process. But that has changed with current prices of fertilizer and grain, and given that yields have gone up considerably in last 2 to 3 years. Every decision you make and every piece of information you use to make that decision becomes more valuable. And the risk of having the wrong information, or making the wrong decision, is considerably greater.

For example, what’s the right fertilizer rate? Do I need to put increase the fertilizer rate because soil tests have not been kept up? The risk of putting too much or too little on is higher — both ways are risky, and potentially costly. Those fertilizer dollars we thought we were saving by cutting rates in recent years will now cost considerably more to replace.

Another consideration is the new genetics. We are picking up several bushels for every trait that is added — I have seen numbers as high as 8 additional bushels for every trait added to a seed. Seed companies say the corn seed they plant for 2010 crop will have up to 8 stacked traits. Figuring even a 2 to 3 bushel gain for every trait, that will boost yields again by around 20 bushels per acre. Choosing the right hybrid becomes a higher risk, not only for the seed cost, but even more for the potential yield gain or loss that is associated with that decision. And those extra bushels will be gained only if sufficient nutrient supplies are in the soil to support that extra production.

With this in mind, we must understand that we can’t build the soil test levels overnight and provide enough nutrients to take full advantage of the trait technology. We need to plan ahead so that out soil tests are where they should be. Not above current recommendations, but at least at recommendations.

If we’ve been cutting back in last few years, the cost of this practice, as well as the risk of losing yield, is going to escalate. The soil has a vast nutrient reserve to draw from in many cases, but we need recognize that it is a resource that must be maintained. Precision agriculture practices can help growers and their trusted advisers review soil test and yield data and make best decisions. This technology helps fine-tune recommendations and invest the fertilizer dollars where they will generate the best return.

Again, current grain and fertilizer prices greatly increase the value of the precision technology, the data generated, and the decisions based upon it. Precision management pays now more than ever.

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