In the 7,000-year history of agriculture, precision agriculture is hardly a blip on the timeline. Indeed, the fundamental principles and technologies that helped establish site-specific farming only go back slightly more than a decade.
And as the new kid on the block, so to speak, precision agriculture has gone through the same growth curve associated with most new industries. Early on, the first wave of adopters tried every system and practice, eventually sorting out what worked from what didn’t. Then came the pause, as precision agriculture manufacturers adjusted to the market wants and started offering newer precision systems for the industry to try. Conventional wisdom said that this event would lead to an even greater acceptance for precision agriculture technologies among ag retailers and growers alike, greatly expanding the number of site-specific users across the country.
Yet, in many ways, this conventional wisdom hasn’t panned out. According to the past several Precision Agriculture Surveys conducted by CropLife magazine and Purdue University, precision agriculture adoption has largely stalled among the nation’s ag retailers, remaining constant at approximately 60% of respondents offering the technologies to their grower-customers. Likewise, the percentage of growers using precision agriculture systems in their operations has remained relatively flat. The problem in both instances, say industry observers, is that many precision agriculture technologies are expensive to use (in both money and time) and too complicated for the average user to fully utilize.
“Many early technologies for precision agriculture added complexity to farming operations because they were so information intensive and didn’t play very well for many producers,” says Bruce Erickson, director of cropping systems management at Purdue. “If you are looking for technology drivers and practices to gain acceptance, it always boils down to a couple of factors — technology’s ability to increase revenue, decrease costs on risks, or strengthen relationships with business partners. Many of the earlier precision agriculture technologies didn’t do any of these, so they are still having a lot of trouble catching on. I mean, everyone seems to have stacks of yield maps in their office, but they don’t know what to do with them.”
Fortunately for precision agriculture, there are several profound changes taking place in the world of agriculture, all of which play in its future fortunes. “We are in a different economic environment today compared to where we’ve ever been before, totally uncharted waters,” says Erickson. “There have been some fundamental shifts where you are dealing with significantly different input costs and significantly different prices for crops. This means there is more of need to manage expenses and increase returns than we’ve ever had in the past.”
Dr. Harold Reetz, Jr., director of external support for the Foundation for Economic Research (FAR), agrees with this assessment. “The new twist for precision agriculture technologies may be that the economics of crop production now make the value of information much greater, as well as the value of the tools that utilize that information in making management decisions,” says Reetz. “There is more of need for the ability to convert these technologies into variable-rate applications of inputs based on real site-specific data and science-based relationships to fine tune inputs.”
Better Data Management
Luckily for the precision agriculture industry, it seems as if the data gathering and management systems used to collect this information have improved significantly in their simplicity and effectiveness. This is the first big technology trend in precision agriculture for 2008. “We dreamed of this 15 years ago, and we can do it today,” says Reetz of the data management trend. “At least, it’s being done by those users who have taken the concept seriously and have developed their local on-farm database to support such systems. Yield monitor data to document effects of all of these technologies is also of much higher value under today’s prices for grains and inputs.”
Purdue’s Erickson agrees that the systems to manage data have gotten better. “The technologies today are getting less expensive for users to buy, but they are doing much more in the handling of that information,” he says.
Not surprisingly, the retail community also sees better data management as the No. 1 trend in today’s precision agriculture growth. “The very biggest trend I see right now is our data handling ability has improved dramatically,” says Kevin Kilgus, precision information manager, North Central Division, for Helena Chemical Co. “I know precision agriculture data gathering goes back a few years, but now, for the first time, we are managing the data we collect in a easy-to-understand, simple way.”
In many ways, adds Kilgus, the problem was one of communication, particularly between the systems used to gather information. “We used to have software that worked great by itself and hardware that worked great by itself,” he says. “Unfortunately, they didn’t tend to work very well when you got them together and tried to make sense of everything.”
Today, however, things are different. As an example of how much this has simplified and streamlined, Kilgus details how he used to have to manage the information gathered from grower-customers’ precision agriculture systems. “Not that many years ago, for me to manage the yield data, soil fertility, and planting information for 20,000 acres of farmland in my territory, it would take me from the time the information started coming into my office during the fall to January or February to get a data book back to growers for them to use for the next season,” he says. “It was a long, long process. But today, using the systems that are out there, I can create that same package of information and get it to the grower in less than one week.”
Of course, he adds, it hasn’t hurt that the people now working with these systems have gotten much more knowledgeable as well. “Back in the 1990s, the adoption curve for precision agriculture systems was very steep and not many people knew what they were doing,” says Kilgus. “But today, we are starting to get new employees right out of college that have experience in this kind of technology, and the software is easier for them to understand and use. This has made it easier for this crop of people specializing in precision agriculture to profile the needs of the grower-customer, looking at the costs and deciding what parts of which programs best fit those businesses or farms. There’s no more guesswork like there used to be.”
Autosteering Stays Hot
The second top technology trend in 2008 is no real surprise — automatic steering. Since this technology first burst onto the scene back in the early 2000s, it has been growing in impressive leaps and bounds. From a relatively small user base of approximately 4% back in 2004, the number of users for automatic steering systems has octupled. In fact, according to the results of the annual CropLife/Purdue Precision Agriculture Survey, approximately one in three precision agriculture users has an automatic steering system in their operation. Among growers, the systems are just as popular.
“In 2008 for automatic steering, things were pretty much the same as they were in 2007,” says Kilgus. “This is still the precision agriculture technology that most people are looking for to make their lives simpler, whether at the retailer location or on the farm.”
Of course, it hasn’t hurt, he adds, that growers now have more money in their pockets from higher commodity prices to spend on such systems and that the systems themselves have come down in price because of their popularity. “It’s a perfect positive storm for automatic steering’s growth,” says Kilgus. “The systems have actually gotten easier to use and cheaper to buy. The positives have remained constant — using automatic steering systems helps users increase the length of their day and their application windows while cutting down significantly on the stress level being put on the drivers.”
Speaking of the driver, many industry experts have speculated that as automatic steering technologies improve, the day will dawn when custom application and field machinery work fall exclusively under the realm of total automation. Indeed, back in the late 1990s, our sister publication CropLife (then called Farm Chemicals) printed a special section wondering what farms would look like in the year 2010. One of the predictions in this pictorial showed a sprayer being operated exclusively by a mechanical man, with no human operator in sight.
Will this day come to pass? According to Kilgus, no.
“I believe there will always be a need for operators in big equipment, even as automatic steering becomes more widespread and easier to use,” he says. “You have to remember — that’s a big, expensive piece of equipment out there in the field. I can’t see the day coming when the owner will be completely comfortable just leaving it in the hands of a robot.”
Kilgus does, however, expect automatic steering systems to gain even more converts. Furthermore, he predicts the next generation of these systems — ones that can even handle end-of-row turns — will begin appearing in the next few years. “This technology will just keep getting better and easier,” he concludes.
Variable-Rate (Fill In The Blank)
The next three most popular technologies in 2008 all fell in the same master category — variable-rate. Only the last word on each is different, though the market forces driving their growth remains largely the same — economics. As more overall money has come into the agricultural market, prices across the board have steadily risen. Perhaps no other input has seen bigger cost increases than fertilizer. As more and more growers keep chasing the potential profits from growing continuous corn to feed the ethanol industry, the amount of crop nutrients being applied to the nation’s fields has gone through the roof. Suppliers in turn, wanting to meet their grower-customers’ needs, have bought up more and more fertilizer. This has increased the costs of all the macronutrients.
“Site-specific nutrient management is perhaps the top priority among the various components,” says FAR’s Reetz. “The value of getting the right product at the right rate in the right place at the right time, the four ‘rights’ being promoted by the fertilizer industry, is now much higher than it has been in recent years. The cost of making the wrong decision, providing too little nutrients causing crop loss or applying too much and not getting a return on investment, is also much higher in today’s world.”
Retailers have also noted this trend. “We are finding that more customers are relying on us to grid sample their fields and variable-rate spread their fertilizers,” says Case DeYoung, facility manager for Wilbur-Ellis Co. in Grant, MI.
According to Brad Murray, precision agriculture specialist for Landmark Agronomy Services, his company’s grower-customers are also asking for more grid soil testing to decide where to variable-rate apply nitrogen-based fertilizers in their fields. “We’ve seen a really big increase in our sales for this precision agriculture service, especially when we explain to growers that approximately 60% of fertilizer gets put in the wrong spot without some help from precision practices,” says Murray.
In many ways, variable-rate seeding is also being impacted by these same market drivers. Although it hasn’t experienced the same kind of price hikes evident in the fertilizer marketplace, seed is nonetheless getting more expensive to purchase. According to most experts, the price of seed corn this fall will surpass the $300 mark. As a result, growers will want to be very precise in where they plant these precious seeds and not waste any more than is necessary, says FAR’s Reetz.
Finally, the last of the top five technology trends in 2008 is variable-rate application of crop protection products. According to Reetz, this is being driven not only by overall market economic conditions, but some regional needs as well. “VRA chemical seems especially hot in the Mid-South right now, where there is more chemical use and more goes into the decision-making process,” he says.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of PrecisionAg Special Reports.