Precision Pointers

Editor’s Note: Many experts believe that the successful grower of tomorrow is going to have to incorporate at least some aspects of precision agriculture to compete in an increasingly global economy. One of those experts is Bryan G. Hopkins, an associate professor at Brigham Young University, who has been involved in precision agriculture for the past 15 years. What follows are a few of his thoughts on the topic to increase your chances of success.

Knowledge Is Power

It’s crucial for growers to understand that precision agriculture is simply about information. And the better informed you are, the better you will be able to make the decisions necessary to boost your bottom line. But it takes a real commitment, warns Hopkins. “This is going to sound kind of funny, but precision agriculture is first a mental thing. You have to get it into your head that information is power — a way to make money. If you’re not committed to it, forget it. In my experience, the average grower is not committed to it. They’ll just hire an expert and think that’s it. The difference between an average grower and a grower who’s really making money is information.”

Auto-Steer Is A Nice First Step

It might be tough to recoup the costs for smaller growers, but medium- and large-sized growers will start increasing their net revenue with auto-steer in short order. It depends how good the tractor driver is, but even a top-notch driver cannot match the sub-inch accuracy of an auto-steer system. For example, a good tractor driver planting potatoes might get those rows about 38 to 40 inches apart, but with auto-steer they are exactly 36 inches apart, every time. In nearly every case, Hopkins sees an increase of 5% more plants per acre. “You multiply that by a few hundred acres, and that’s big money.”

Next Assess Yield Variability

Once you have the global positioning system (GPS) equipment to run your auto-steer, you can get the software necessary to assess yield variability. If you don’t use a yield monitor — and they aren’t available for all crops — take samples. Cut your field into management zones. Growers know they have some yield variability, but they generally don’t know how common such variability is, and they rarely know just how extreme it can be. One potato grower in Idaho farmed in an area where it was commonly believed that 350 sacks per acre was the top-end yield. And it was — on average. But after doing test digs, he found that his best areas averaged 550 sacks and his worst averaged about 100. “And that would appear year after year. You need to be able to assess that, if you’re going to improve your yields.”

Consider Aerial Images

If a yield monitor is not an option, you can usually get a pretty accurate picture of what’s going on through near-infrared (NIF) aerial images. By getting images early in the season, then mid-way, and finally prior to harvest, you’ll be able to get a good view of what’s going on. Then by combining a few years’ worth of images, you’ll know where the rich and poor zones are. “Those NIF images will line up pretty well with the yield maps, and you’ll probably find that there are four to five distinct management zones in an average (140-acre) field.”

Fields Within Fields

Each of these management zones will need to be managed differently because they have different characteristics. It takes more time and effort to manage these “mini-fields” differently because you will want to vary rates of nitrogen, or perhaps water, accordingly, but that’s where you’re going to realize your biggest yield and quality increases. “It’s a lot easier to have one recipe and put the same thing on one whole field — or one whole farm, but that’s the biggest mistake most growers make. They’re losing money (on those low-yielding zones), and they’re the growers who will eventually go out of business.”

It’s OK To Call For Help

Most growers are going to have a tough time getting beyond the auto-steer step, or at least doing it correctly — and it’s critical it be done correctly or you’ll just be throwing a lot of money away — so they should find a good consultant. Ask around, but take your time because a good precision agriculture consultant who’s really passionate about his craft isn’t necessarily easy to find. “You basically need a computer nerd who can talk farm language. That’s why they’re hard to find. But they’re out there.”

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