As the 2007 spring season kicks into high gear, market analysts expect one sight to dominate the agricultural landscape — rows and rows of corn, as far as the eye can see. Many crop watchers are predicting that as growers chase the ever-widening pot of ethanol money, they will plant as many as 9 million more acres of corn than in past years. Looking further down the line, most observers believe the number of U.S. acres devoted to corn will continue to grow as the country moves toward 2010.
According to Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer, professor and director of the Site-Specific Management Center for Purdue University, this plays very nicely into the hands of supporters and marketers of precision agriculture. “If you have more continuous corn going into the ground, this will mean there will have to be more intensive management being used to make it as profitable a crop as possible,” says Lowenberg-DeBoer. “In many cases, this will mean growers will want to employ precision practices in their fields, to boost yields and the accuracy of the crop inputs they are using.”
Sid Parks, manager of precision farming for GROWMARK, Inc., agrees. “I’m optimistic that more corn acres will mean more activity in the market for precision agriculture,” says Parks. “With commodity prices going up, growers can seize on the market opportunities to make as much money as possible. This bodes extremely well for site-specific management practices to be used.”
With these precision agriculture industry assessments in mind, PrecisionAg Special Reports examines the 2007 market outlook for each of the key site-specific market segments.
Without question, say precision agriculture experts, the area with the most industry buzz going into 2007 is guidance. “This is one of those areas where you can see immediate results as a user,” says Parks. “You install an automatic steering system in the equipment, use it, and can quickly see that you’ve eliminated skipped rows, spraying overlap, and operator fatigue. It’s easy to gauge these kind of positives.”
Another reason automatic steering has taken off in the marketplace, says Brad Murray, precision agriculture specialist for Landmark Services Cooperative, is its ease of use. “This will become increasingly important in 2007 as more growers start following a continuous corn cropping model,” says Murray. “Since some of these growers will want to plant corn on some highly erodible land, the ability to use automatic steering with real-time kinematic (RTK) accuracy and have the sprayer following the same exact path as the planter will become very important.”
Along these lines, Purdue’s Lowenberg-DeBoer believes fertilizer considerations will also keep precision agriculture guidance systems interest high going forward. “As nitrogen application regulations become tighter and growers do more in-season application work, the need for extremely accurate guidance systems will grow,” he says.
In application technology, the biggest amount of activity in 2007 will center around automatic boom section control. According to GROWMARK’s Parks, most equipment manufacturers are now offering this feature as an option on their units.
“These systems will become more popular because users can use GPS technology to spray only those sections of the field that need to be sprayed,” he says. “There’s no overlap, no wasted effort, and the operator can tell exactly where he’s been applying crop protection products. Coupled with automatic steering systems, this technology is absolutely right for the precision agriculture market going forward.”
According to Parks, there are several developments in the area of precision agriculture software that could eventually mean big changes for the industry. Chief among these is the continuing movement toward more compatibility among various software manufacturer systems.
“There have been some great strides made in this area compared to where we were five years ago,” he says. “If the industry eventually moves toward an ISO standard, that would be wonderful. We’re not there yet, but this kind of compatibility might be coming in the very near future.”
On the monitor and controller front, precision agriculture market observers are seeing plenty of interest from end-users. According to Dr. Harold Reetz, Jr., president of the Foundation for Agronomic Research (FAR), the use of yield monitors is becoming much more common in regions of the country such as the Mid-South. “In cotton, this technology is really beginning to find many new users,” says Reetz.
Another technology that is getting more attention these days, he adds, is remote sensing. “As nitrogen management becomes more of an issue with environmental concerns, there will be increased pressure on growers to keep very tight tabs on their application methods,” says Reetz. “By relying on remote sensing data, operators can provide a very detailed history in this area.”
As with the renewed interest in yield monitors, imagery activity is also currently being driven by the cotton market. According to Purdue’s Lowenberg-DeBoer, many cotton growers are using imagery to help guide their pickers through the fields. “The pickers depend on biomass information to determine when things are ready to harvest, and imagery does a really good job of measuring that,” he says.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for corn and soybean growers. Here, says Lowenberg-DeBoer, there is some research being conducted trying to use imagery to determine soil properties through the use of different color schemes, but this is still in its infancy. “In the oilseeds crops, many users are still looking for a way to make imagery aid in their application procedures,” he says. “Of course, with higher grain prices putting more money into grower pockets, I suspect we will find more interest in this technology in 2007 than we’ve seen in the past few years.”
According to Landmark’s Murray, the cooperative’s grower-customers are increasingly looking to use all forms of data collection in their fields. “As we have seen increased activity with growers wanting to plant more corn acres in 2007, they have asked us about doing more data collection along the way,” he says. “With corn prices being up and crop input prices being low, I could see plenty of growth in this area as we move forward through the year.”
This movement could add some significant revenue to many retailers’ bottom lines, adds Murray, because of its potential scope. “At present, approximately 80% of our grower-customers ask us to manage this data for them because of the time involved in overseeing it,” he says.