Precision Agriculture 101

How does one get started with integrating precision agriculture into his operation? There are several ways of looking at this and much depends on your needs and budget. The ability to integrate Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies and software applications depends on how it will benefit your operation. Sometimes you will not see these benefits for several years. Your ability to reap these benefits depends on how you use the data for decision making.

There is also no one-size-fits-all approach to getting started. These technologies can be used for any size farm. However, the investment and approaches to using these technologies can differ. Depending on what set of tools are used in the management process, the initial investment has been a driving point to the reluctance of greater adoption.

The best approach is to work with a set of tools that you feel will directly benefit your operation. In most cases across the Midwest, soil sampling and variable rate applications have been achieved through commercial service providers rather than taken on by the grower. This is due, in large part, to the huge investment in variable rate application equipment and time needed for GPS soil sampling. Yield monitors and lightbar guidance technology have been the greatest entry points in precision technologies for many growers.

Ultimately, growers want a set of practices that will produce the best outcome for meeting environmental goals while maintaining productivity and profitability in crop production. Having a basic understanding of field variability is the first approach to knowing what set of management practices need to be adjusted and justify the cost of using precision agriculture tools. Growers have known about variability in fields for years. Until the development of GPS and geographic information systems (GIS), there was no accurate way to measure the effects of different sources of variability in the field on crop performance.

The influence of variability on crop production and management practices needs to be understood before making recommendations. This requires good data collection and interpretation of the field characteristics. Data collection methods can include typical assessments on field elevation, slope, soils, fertility, plant tissue, weeds, diseases, insects, yield, irrigation, and drainage. Several characteristics such as climate, site, and soil cannot be changed and have to be dealt with differently when making field recommendations.

Collecting Data

Investing in a mobile GPS data collection system is important to collect soil fertility data and gather general crop scouting information. These systems can run between $1,200 to $3,500, including a mobile computing device such as a Pocket PC, low-cost GPS, and field record keeping and mapping software.

The largest variance in cost depends on the accuracy of the GPS receiver. Most GPS field record keeping software runs between $500 to $700. Information obtained from GPS-based soil samples and other data can then be used with a desktop GIS software package to generate application maps for nutrients.

Yield monitoring is a starting point and basis for determining sources of variability in the field by knowing the yield potential at given locations. The most widely used yield monitors are for corn, soybean, and wheat. Yield sensors are also available for cotton, potatoes, and other grain crops. There are limited technologies for specialty crops, but they are starting to become more available. Because of product size, harvest timing, plant heights, and product textures, many specialty crops are handled differently and take specific techniques to monitor yields in real-time.

Variable rate technologies (VRT) provide the ability to vary crop inputs. These inputs include: seeding, lime, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, micronutrients, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides. To make VRT work, data that was previously collected with GPS goes through an analysis process in software using input recommendation calculations to derive a per unit/acre application rate. The outcome is a desired application map of that input to tell the controller where and when to apply a certain input in the field.

These systems vary on set-up costs and depend on equipment size, amount of controllers needed, and GPS accuracy needed for the application. The overall ability to justify the need for VRT depends on the amount of variability in the field. In many cases, it is more affordable to use custom VRT applicators.

The adoption of GPS lightbar and auto guidance systems has shown to increase net revenues above variable and technology costs by up to $30 per acre. These systems increase overall operating speed and reduce fatigue.

More importantly, it reduces field application overlap and skip errors by 5% to 10% compared to traditional methods. This is also directly related to savings in fuel, labor, and machinery depreciation. Precise driving can also lead to better controlled traffic, which also reduces compaction, leading to an increase in higher yields. This means a potential income increase up to $15 per acre.

An entry-level guidance system with a GPS and lightbar can cost on average $3,500. A producer who does most of his own spraying or spreading can see immediate benefits in adopting simple lightbar guidance technology. For larger growers, there is even greater potential.

Depending on your tractor requirements and options, these prices can range between $15,000 and $30,000 on average. Ultimately, you pay for GPS accuracy and features to make your tractor essentially drive itself.

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