Precision Agriculture — Alive And Well In 2011

Fifteen years ago when you asked a group of farmers in a meeting how many are using precision ag, only a few hand would go up. Today the response may be about the same. Have we not made progress? To the contrary, progress and adoption have reached the point that most users don’t consider it a new, or unique, set of practices. Precision farming has been incorporated to the point that it is the standard way of doing business. Sure there are still some hold-outs who for one reason or another have not adopted precision technology, but most farmers are using more of it than they realize.

We are far from 100% adoption. Most farmers and input suppliers can still enhance their management by adopting more technology. There probably is no end-point on this. New technologies and new ways of using them arrive on the scene every day. Just being aware of what is available is a challenge. That makes it difficult to decide when to make the investment in the next piece of the system.

Where were we on the timeline? In 1995 when we held the first InfoAg conference, some representatives of the ag community in the Champaign, IL, area teamed up with the staff at the National Center for Supercomputer Activities (NCSA) to develop the Cyberfarm Demonstration which was a half dozen stations where the attendees discussed how precision ag and communications technology could support the needs of different members of the rural community. An implement dealer led discussion on how his business and interaction with customers would benefit. An Extension educator delved into new ways to get technology and production information to the farmer. A fertilizer/chemical dealer showed how grid sampling and variable-rate application could improve efficiency in supplying crop inputs. A crop consultant discussed how to interpret a new tool, yield maps from the combine. The NRCS county office provided insight into the field variability explained by soil survey maps (paper maps, digital soil surveys were just getting started). The high school vo-ag teacher reviewed the new challenges in preparing young minds for the future world of technology they were about to enter. Oh, and there was that bag phone that meant we no longer were tethered to a network of lines, but were free to roam and even make calls from the corn field. How much could that enhance our operation and efficiency? We had a lot of fun putting this together and dreaming about the possibilities.

Fast-Forward to 2011—What has happened to those dreams? As we start 2011 and look back at those dreams, what has been accomplished? Some of them didn’t materialize, but most have developed far beyond what we could have imagined in 1995. Monitors, sensors, rate controllers, and other electronic tools that we didn’t even think about are common place. Digital soil survey with its included database is a reality for almost every farm. Auto-guidance, individual row controllers, on-board technologies for improving efficiency all are common place, seemed far-out in 1995. We have developed and adopted much more precision farming and data management technology than we even thought about in 1995. We are collecting more data about our farms and businesses than we know how to manage.

That is our next big challenge: turning that data into informationand using that information to make better-informed management decisions. And that bag phone? It has been replaced with a powerful communication unit; the smart phone that not only handles voice communication, but also can access data, maps, photos, and other information instantaneously form anywhere in the world, provides GPS coordinates of photos and notes and sounds recordings you make, and can perform some pretty sophisticated decision-aid functions right in the tractor cab. Step that up to the iPAD and other tablet devices and more doors open. You can carry much of your information with you, and have easy access to the rest. Now the challenge is to find the time to use it all. That may be the biggest limitation to precision farming 2011-style. Can a farmer really be expected to do all of that data management and interpretation. This may open some serious opportunities for the information management consultant to become a part of the farm team.

Today’s Dreams? What are we thinking about for the future now? I hope we are still thinking ahead, with even more impossible dreams. Technology and information management and communication are moving fast & outpacing our ability to figure out all of the ways to use I in some cases. The limitation is in managing and interpreting data, and in knowing the agronomic relationships and other interactions that are the keys to making the better-informed decisions for fine-tuning management decisions for precision farming that is economically and environmentally sustainable.

InfoAg 2011. Join us for InfoAg 2011, July 14-16, 2011, in Springfield, Illinois, to catch up with the latest and greatest in precision ag and information technology, and help expand the dream. See www.infoag.org for details.

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