The State Of Precision Ag In 2016

Buhler Versatile HQ cab
The tight economy helped reveal the promises of precision ag are delivering.

There’s no denying that precision technologies and practices are more vibrant than ever. Elsewhere on this site, you will find information about what’s likely to come for the category during the upcoming 2017 season. But before looking ahead, a glance backward is in order.

In 2016, equipment manufacturers spent much of their time fine-tuning the hardware for guidance, autosteering, and application control. Wireless, Internet, and Cloud resources also made precision tasks quicker and easier. Data collection and analysis got more refined and useful. And corporations began offering powerful new resources for monitoring crop variables.

But low commodity prices cast a long shadow over farm budgets. Growers and retailers definitely felt the pinch.

Economic Challenges

The economy in 2016 pushed growers to re-think some of their approaches to equipment and practices. For instance, Jeremy Wilson, Technology Specialist at Crop IMS, reports that “there’s not a lot of new equipment coming to the farm now.” Growers are moving around steering and application equipment, GPS receivers, and displays. In the past, Crop IMS went through a spell where if customers traded in a tractor, they left the precision technology in it, and Wilson sold them a new set for the new tractor to come.

Expectations of Retail Offerings of Precision Ag Services
Source: 2015 CropLife/Purdue Precision Agriculture Adoption Survey

Growers are also fixing what they already have, and Wilson says that “the one kick-up we’ve seen is service parts. We’re just fixing more stuff.”

A number of market watchers reported precision business was actually hit harder over the past couple of years, but sales started to come back during 2016. The reason? Customers realized that this technology will make money and provide a return-on-investment (ROI). The feeling was this advantage was needed now more than ever because margins were so tight.

Wilson says this down cycle in new equipment sales is probably the worst he’s seen in his 15 years in the business, but he’s optimistic. Technology and data are such an important piece of what ag is doing today, they bring value, he emphasizes. And Wilson has growers telling him that as soon as the economy turns around a little bit, they have a list of precision things they want to do.

Areas of Strength

Growers also were making nutrient management a priority. South Dakota Wheat Growers (SDWG) saw “absolutely zero cutbacks” in precision service purchases during 2016, says Brent Wiesenburger, Precision Ag Manager. “We’ve seen the acres in our MZB (Management Zone Based) program actually increase YTD in this economic downturn,” he reports. “That tells me producers and our staff really understand why we are doing this stuff! We’re getting acres enrolled that producers only have a single year land lease on — which tells me they see instant returns on the precision ag investment.”

Craig Houin, Sunrise Cooperative
Craig Houin, Sunrise Cooperative

At Sunrise Cooperative, equipment sales have been strong and grid soil sampling has been going up vs. the previous three years. Variable-rate (VR) planting prescriptions have increased every year and VR applications of lime, phosphorus, and potassium have remained steady as growers saw value in managing nutrients more closely.

Craig Houin, Data Management Lead, reports a recent comment from a customer: “I’ve grid sampled and VRT limed for three sample cycles and have seen my pHs maintain adequate levels with less lime each year. I see a huge savings in lime expense and know my fields are doing well due to VRT and measured with grid sampling.”

“Right now our biggest gains are from analyzing good yield data,” says Ben Flansburg, BCA Ag Technologies. “We’re looking at that data against all farm practices like seed, fertilizer and anything else that is being mapped. This is helping us figure out where our biggest gains are coming from and where we can cut back. These programs are making big differences right away on our cost per acre and return on investment.”

Yield mapping, the data cornerstone of precision ag, continued to gain customers during 2016. In fact, Shane Rollins, Precision Ag Consultant with Farm Service Inc., says his team grew this service — as well as yield monitor calibration — to an all-time high this year. Then too, there was also higher demand to simply put more GPS equipment on yield monitors.

Crop IMS’ Wilson lists another high point for precision in 2016. “You could say if it relates to a planter, even in these tough conditions, we’ve been selling it and growers are still using it, whether it’s individual row shut-offs, downforce pressure controls, or hydraulic drives,” he says.

Wilson estimates that fully 50% to 60% of the growers his company worked with in 2016 had some of the latest planter technology.

Customers at Ag Info Tech, LLC have also been specifically focusing on planting in 2016. The two biggest returns the company saw during the year were in 1) hydraulic downforce equipment and 2) fixes for singulation problems (whether that’s using an electric drive or just adding a vacuum in the planter, via Precision Planting’s vSet Meter). Both of these technologies can have a huge economic impact for growers, says Tim Norris, CEO. Hydraulic downforce improvements can increase corn yields up to 11 bushels per acre, while improved singulation can improve yield up to 5.1 bushels per acre.

Addressing UAVs

Opinions on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) ran hot and cold in 2016. General consensus was they are going to have a place in agriculture — 40% of precision agriculture experts talked with in 2016 agreed that UAVs will play a significant role in their precision program within the next five years. However, respondents interviewed noted that users face several hurdles including cost, Federal Aviation Administration regulations, qualified staff, and time constraints.

Precision ag experts think UAVs will play a significant role in their precision program within the next five years.

Aaron Grote, GIS Manager at United Prairie, says that UAVs are pricey, especially to get an industrial grade unit that can carry a good, high-res camera capable of taking georeferenced NDVI images. And they still require someone to go out and spend the time to fly them over the fields (even if they have autopilot, someone has to be there to plot the course and change the batteries).

“After the data has been collected someone has to stitch all of that imagery together and process it for it to make any sense,” adds Grote. “By the time you do all of that, I don’t see where UAVs save time, save money, or are a much easier alternative to what we already have. And if you crash one, things just really got expensive.”

Grote would see more value if UAVs delivered actionable information other than just NDVI imagery — something like picking out Palmer amaranth from a field with waterhemp in it. And “as cheap as the quadcopters are, every grower ought to have one to get a simple, in-season overhead look of what is going on in their fields. You can tell a lot from just an overhead picture,” he points out.

SDWG’s Wiesenburger doesn’t see a big need for a fleet of UAVs and pilots to man them. While he acknowledges producers need a spot snapshot from time to time, he’s not sure how the units can become a scalable solution for a large retail cooperative.

Sunrise Coop’s Houin agrees. He says that UAVs in the hands of growers taking photos or video of crops are great — but not realistic for the retailer to manage or provide. “An agronomist cannot handle the file sizes generated from UAV imagery and return them to the hands of the grower in a timely manner consistently enough to bring the concept to market,” says Houin. “We tested a UAV on 10 fields last year without any success, measured on ease-of-use and value to cost perspective.”

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