Precision Agriculture Present And Future

Precision technology for site-specific management systems has been around for many years, but it has been widely discussed and tried for about the past 10 years. So maybe it is time to take a look back at what has happened in that 10-year period. Much has been written; much has been discussed over that time. Let’s put it in perspective as a summary of the past, a snapshot of the present, and a little peak into the crystal ball of the future.

Precision farming and site-specific management technologies have improved much over the past 10 years. Some of the leading companies and people have changed, some have left the market entirely, and others have evolved to meet changing market dynamics. The majority of farmers and agribusinesses have, in one way or another, adapted at least some of the technology. Some have actively sought it out and incorporated it into their management systems. Others have been more passive, but as the technology has become a part of standard operating procedure, it has become a part of common practice.

As we move into the 2006 cropping season, what is working? What is missing? Where are we with site-specific management and the various components? Let’s break it down:

Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

With the ability to pinpoint information geographically and build a detailed database of resources, field activities, observations, inputs, and production, GIS is the basis of site-specific management. The ability to build records that define the within-field variability in all of these factors creates the opportunity to vary agronomic management to best fit the needs of the field. Economics also can be refined to a smaller scale to assess the impact on efficiency and profitability.

And GIS tools have evolved dramatically over the past 10 years. Software has generally improved in power and user-friendly features. We have learned how to integrate different data layers more efficiently. Resource databases, such as digital soil surveys and weather information, have been developed that help interpret the variability in other data layers. Most important, more farmers and their advisers, and more researchers, have learned how to use these tools in recordkeeping and decision-making.

What is needed? We still have a long way to go to get the majority of farmers and their advisers to embrace the idea of GIS-based records and management decisions. Software still could be more user friendly. Farmers probably need to learn to seek outside help from professional GIS consultants to help them utilize the data they collect.

Global Position Satellites

The global positioning system (GPS) was just becoming available to the public in 1995. It is the basis for the GIS database development and many of the technology applications associated with site-specific management. The system today is much more reliable, differential corrections have improved, and selective availability has been eliminated as a problem. Further developments are promised that will make the accuracy even better.

Remote Sensing

Remote sensing, using satellite imagery for various identification processes, geo-referencing location of certain imagery, and tracking of change over time are real tools added to the toolbox for farmers and their advisers. Resolution, spectral ranges, and frequency of visit have improved. Perhaps most important, experience and research have improved the technology of remote sensing, and our expectations have become more realistic. Coupled with some of the other GIS databases, remote sensing becomes a valuable interpretive tool.

Besides satellite remote sensing, aerial and ground-based tools have become valuable tools for real-time monitoring and decision-making, for applications such as nitrogen rate adjustment, variable-rate pesticide application, and others.

Guidance Systems

Improvement of technology and reduction in price have helped make automatic guidance a reality for many field applications. While totally driverless systems are still not quite ready for full release, automatic steering systems are saving users money, reducing driver fatigue, and improving input efficiency. The high-end real-time kinematic (RTK) systems are making near-prefect tracking of subsequent field operations possible. We expect strip tillage with specific controlled placement of fertilizer, followed by on-track planting to revolutionize “starter” fertilizer application in the near future for many farmers.

Variable-Rate Application

Among the first applications of site-specific technology in the mid-1990s was variable-rate fertilizer application. Still a widely used technology, variable-rate fertilizer suffered from the fact that the cost of the products being applied was so low, that it was often deemed more economical to spread a higher rate on the whole field rather than invest in the costs of sampling and equipment to implement variable-rate phosphorus, potassium, and lime. As fertilizer costs have increased, this economic interpretation needs to be re-evaluated. Variable-rate nitrogen may become a more viable option with increased nitrogen (N) costs and improved technology to determine N status of the soil and the growing crop. This is still in the early stages of adoption, but promises to become a common practice in the near future.

Communication/Sharing

A parallel development with precision farming tools has been the improvement of communications. Whenever sharing of large amounts of data is necessary, as with site-specific management implementation, communication becomes critical. In the past 10 years, the Internet has gone from a promise to a working reality that has far surpassed all predictions for application in agriculture. The technology, accessibility, and services provided continue to expand. While full broadband access has still not reached all rural areas, it is a reality for many users and will continue to grow.

Workshops

Various companies, organizations, and universities have held workshops for more in-depth training on the use of precision agriculture hardware and software tools. But it has been difficult to provide the amount of such “hands-on” experience that is really needed. Online and self-study modules are helping to fill the gap, but there is still a need for getting the end-users into the right amount of training to help them feel comfortable with the tools. It’s an ongoing challenge that we are trying to meet.

Agronomics

The technology continues to move faster than the agronomics. Support for general agronomic research is very limited. Most of today’s government and industry funding is targeted to more basic genetic engineering and biotechnology research. So it is difficult to find support for the kind of agronomic studies needed to refine precision farming systems. The Foundation for Agronomic Research (FAR) and the Potash & Phosphate Institute (PPI) try to maintain a strong program of support for such work, but our ability to do so depends upon contributions from other individuals, companies, and organizations. Details on supporting these efforts are found on the FAR Web site, www.farmresearch.com.

Support Services

Successful use of precision farming requires a variety of support services, especially someone to assist in the collection, analysis, and interpretation of the vast amount of information produced. Most of us would prefer the “do it myself” approach. But it is impossible to assemble and learn all of the necessary software and keep it and yourself up-to-date on tools used infrequently. It is a better strategy to find a good consultant who works with several clients on similar information processing, and can thus justify the time and cost of such tools and training. Plus you gain the benefit of the experience he/she gets in working with the other clients.

Environmental Impacts

We are just beginning to explore and realize the impact that precision farming can have on environmental problems associated with crop production. Studies will be initiated in 2006 to evaluate precision farming practices as a means of reducing agricultural erosion, runoff, and other contamination of watersheds feeding into the Chesapeake Bay. The Foundation for Agronomic Research (FAR) in cooperation with the Potash & Phosphate Institute (PPI) and USDA-NRCS has begun a series of projects to help define best management practices (BMPs) for fertilizer management in six different major cropping systems across the U.S. FAR has been awarded a three-year Conservation Innovation Grant from USDA-NRCS, along with support from industry, to help fund this work. Regional InfoAg Conferences over the next three years will serve as an outreach vehicle to get the recommendations to farmers and their advisers. The goal is to show how technology implementation can become an integral part of a good conservation plan and have a positive impact on our natural resources.

Compatibility And Standards

The “One-Stop-Shop” for precision farming doesn’t exist … and probably never will. In fact, we should hope that it never comes, because that would stifle the innovation and creativity that have brought us this technology. But we could use some improvement in standardization of database and equipment design. Yes it has come a long way in the past 10 years, but we are not there yet. Somewhere there is a balance between proprietary interests and compatibility that we need to achieve. That will come from continued discussion and cooperation among the vendors, service providers, and end-users. Conferences and trade shows help stimulate that discussion in a non-threatening environment. Let’s keep up the networking that occurs at such events.

Communication Innovations

The Internet was the new thing 10 years ago. Now most of us can’t remember what life was like before instant worldwide communication and immediate access to an unbelievable wealth of information. We certainly don’t want to go back. Just as we couldn’t dream 10 years ago of what the Internet would offer us today, we also cannot imagine the developments and services that we will come to depend upon in the next 10 years. But we need to keep our eyes open because innovation is on a much faster track today. Most of the inventions and services that will guide our daily activities in 10 years are not even being thought of today. We just need to be flexible and ready to adapt.

Cell Phones

This is another innovation that has changed the way we all function in our daily routines. That change was not on our radar screens in 1995. No one anticipated that a field scout could take a color photo with his phone and submit it to a central pest management lab and get an immediate positive identification of a disease, weed, or insect problem. Or that that same phone with GPS mapping capability could help locate a problem and link to a database to find out the cropping and management history of the field. Or using the same handheld unit, an agronomist or farmer can have a direct wireless connection to the Internet to access the full information resource available, or to send and receive e-mails from the middle of a cotton field in Alabama or a wheat field in Kansas. Not dreamed of in 1995 — reality in 2006!

Whether the cell phone, GPS, and PDA functions are in the same handheld unit or in separate units may be a matter of convenience or personal preference. But the use of such functionality is real and that kind of scenario plays out daily across the country.

What lies ahead? Certainly the functions of the cell phone will continue to grow and improve. Those who are too slow to embrace the technology will be at a decided disadvantage in staying informed and providing the best service to their farming operation or their clients.

Integration Challenge

The No. 1 challenge facing us is to gain the ability to successfully integrate all of these technology (hardware and software) tools, services, and databases. Compatibility will continue to be a hurdle. Teamwork among the developers will help … we must improve cooperation. No one will have it all, so we need to pick our partners and move forward. Data from a variety of sources will be essential to developing and implementing the kinds of decision support systems that we need to fully benefit from precision farming.

There will always be those who stand on the sideline waiting for the right time to get started. It was that way 10 years ago, but they have not noticed yet. Those who started back then now have significant data collected from variable-rate application systems and yield monitors, and sufficient GIS records to begin making the informed decisions that are the real benefit of adopting precision technology. There will always be those who jump in without testing the water. They sometimes win, they sometimes lose. We all thank them for taking the risk for everyone.

Act cautiously, but act! Somewhere in-between the “wait and see” and “jump in first” approaches is the right time to gain the benefits of what works without taking too much risk with what doesn’t. Much of precision farming does work. We can all benefit from it. But we have to get ourselves and our businesses prepared to reap those benefits. There is an old adage that says, “some people make things happen, some watch things happen, and some sit back and wonder what happened.” Where do you fit?

The Future????

All of the tools outlined above will continue to evolve and improve, and will become a part of common practice for most of us. What will be the potential for on-farm networking of sensors (weather data collection, grain bin monitoring, field operations, etc.) to collect and analyze data, run simulation models, and provide other decision support? Let your imagination run wild and you will probably still be too conservative in thinking about what will actually be in the precision agriculture toolbox in 2016. Jump on board and fasten your seatbelt. It will be a great ride!

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

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