Perspective: Precision Agriculture, Step By Step

One of the most common questions I get asked in grower presentations or at ag shows is: “How do I get started in precision ag?” Perhaps a better question is: “What do I need to do to be successful in precision agriculture?”

The precision success stories in this issue provide good examples of individuals who have been successful over the years. But it is sometimes helpful to think back on what are the steps to this success. This thought process is especially instructive to folks who are getting their feet wet for the first time in precision agriculture.

The first step to success is determining whether there is a need for precision agriculture in your enterprise. Just running out and getting a bunch of software or going online may be more of a liability than an asset if there is no well-defined need for the effort. This need can be in the form of expected efficiency in operations or in having better records of decisions made and actions taken in production. The need could be driven by regulatory demands or a proactive position to be in the lead with new ideas in the industry. Whatever the reason, it is important to recognize why one gets involved in precision agriculture.

The second step is determining the specific requirements that will fulfill the identified need or needs. Requirements can be synonymous with technology tools. For example, if I have a need to map my farm, I may require geographic information systems (GIS) software to make boundaries of my fields. If better records are my need, I may require an on-line record keeping program. If I need to report my production practices to buyers, a tracking program may be in order.

Once the requirements have been enumerated, the third step is to identify the personnel within your organization who are going to use IT tools. If you do not have the right people, the tools will be of little or no value. While everyone wishes for a program with a “magic” button that gives an answer, the truth is a user must have a minimum understanding of how a tool works. Before making an investment in tools or education, it is important to find the right individual(s) for the job.

The fourth step to success is training and support, whether from within an organization or outside. Handing someone a set of tools without training can be both frustrating and costly to all involved. Furthermore, the lack of follow-up support for a program can waste untold hours and leave participants feeling abandoned at the most inopportune time. Support is probably one of the most important but least appreciated aspects of any precision agriculture effort.

The fifth step is back-up, whether in the form of an alternate plan to do something or just archiving important information. Back-up also pertains to people. At least two individuals should be trained to perform the same skills. There should be at least two computers with similar configurations to ensure a possible failure of one. Back-up is more than just an insurance policy; it provides added capability in times of short-term, high demand.

Some Steps Beyond
The five steps for success in precision agriculture — determine need, specify requirements, identify personnel, train and support, and provide back-up — must be accompanied by other common sense practices. One such practice is allowing for adequate time to incorporate a precision agriculture technology into an existing enterprise. Whatever time was planned for adding a tool, you should double it. Everything takes longer because of integration issues, resistance to change, and just normal feedback during installation.

Another common sense practice is constant communication during the step-by-step process for incorporating precision agriculture tools. Communication in the form of documentation, check-off lists, and periodic updates on progress keeps everyone focused and on the same page. Lastly, common sense dictates that you never take on more than you can handle. It is better to have one small tool delivered and working, than a number of them incomplete and behind schedule. The careful planning and allocation of resources in any application always pays off in time and savings.

As a final note, precision agriculture is about harnessing technologies to improve decision making and production practices. New technologies, by their nature, are going to be disruptive to an existing operation. But this disruption can be for the betterment of the enterprise if the right steps are taken in combination with a common sense approach.

Joseph Russo, an early pioneer in the precision agriculture movement, is president of ZedX Inc., Bellefonte, PA.

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