The Cost Of Doing Business

Since it first appeared on the agricultural scene back in the mid-1990s, precision agriculture has been part perceived savior and part curiosity. While many growers and ag retailers looked to technology to help improve their levels of efficiency and bottom lines, others simply viewed it as something optional — a strictly high-tech plaything for larger operations to figure out.

Today, however, the marketplace has significantly shifted. Over the past 18 months, worldwide commodity prices have improved from a few dollars per bushel to $4 for corn and more than $10 for soybeans. Furthermore, the demand for these crops for use in the biofuels movement has effectively absorbed the worldwide grain surplus, keeping commodity prices from retreating.

This, says Bruce Erickson, director of cropping systems management at Purdue University, has entirely altered the way precision agriculture fits into the scheme of things. “The economic decisions in agriculture in 2008 have all shifted,” says Erickson. “Until now, there were usually small shifts in crop prices and technology taking place in the industry. Now, there’s a revolution at work. Where using precision agriculture used to be worth about a $300 to $600 savings per one acre, it’s twice that now. Making this an even bigger deal is that crop input costs have skyrocketed in recent years as well, adding to the pressure to save money where you can and keep more of it for yourself. Basically, we’ve had a pretty profound incremental change take place, forever.”

Rhett Schildroth, precision agriculture product marketing manager for Topcon Positioning Systems, Inc., agrees with Erickson’s assessment. “Precision agriculture is much more than just steering a tractor,” says Schildroth. “In today’s agriculture environment, it is necessary to run the farm like any other successful business. By controlling every step of the farming process — planning, planting, managing, harvesting, and documentation — it is possible for a grower to increase yields by 20%, 30%, even 40% or more.”

Luckily, many long-standing members of the agricultural community understand the importance precision agriculture and technology now plays in their lives. At a recent computer users’ conference in Missouri, one grower made the following statement regarding the ever-expanding field of technology: “As long as Bill Gates is in charge, something will be obsolete tomorrow.”

Gauging Market Activity

Looking forward to what precision agriculture areas will be the most active in 2008, market observers point to variable-rate applied (VRA) seeding to be at the top of the list. During 2007, with the drive among growers to add more corn to their fields higher than at any time since the end of World War II, ag equipment companies scrambled to upgrade their seeding products accordingly. As Topcon’s Schildroth describes it, precision agriculture technology uses GNSS satellite signals to place every seed in the exact location that best guarantees the maximum chance for survival. “VRA seeding techniques ensure maximum seeding, and thus, maximum yield occurs on every pass,” he says.

Besides VRA seeding, Schildroth believes autoboom leveling is another area that will see plenty of activity in 2008. “Today’s technology extends to boom leveling, which optimizes placement of chemicals by controlling the distance from the spray tip to the crop,” he says.

Sid Parks, manager of precision farming for GROWMARK, Inc., agrees. “With the higher input and fuel costs affecting growers today, I want to be efficient as I can with my precision technology,” says Parks. “That being the case, automatic boom leveling would be one of the top things on my list of technologies to have in my operation.”

As for the fastest growing precision agriculture product area the past few years — automatic steering — analysis say it will continue forward, but at a slightly slower pace. Perhaps more significantly, the reason for adding an automatic steering system to a user’s operation is shifting. “It used to be that people bought automatic steering systems to help reduce their operator fatigue,” says Purdue’s Erickson. “But now, with the agricultural environment looking harder at the money part of the equation, you will start to see more agronomic reasons for putting in an automatic steering system begin to come to the forefront.”

Coupled with this, Dr. Harold Reetz, Jr., president of the Foundation for Agronomic Research, foresees automatic guidance becoming more important during 2008. “There’s much more pressure being put on growers and ag retailers to interpret the massive amount of data that’s out there,” says Reetz. “Autoguidance and the ability to vary your application or product rates across the field will be really important in this regard.”

Beyond 2008, precision agriculture observers can expect many other technologies coming to light. According to Topcon’s Schildroth, within the next few months, operations utilizing multiple machines in multiple locations will be able to monitor each machine remotely. “This will extend right down to the amount of fuel used, engine temperature, whether a machine needs maintenance, and the exact machine location,” he says.

Better yet, these types of systems will be much less complicated to run and understand than has previously been the case. “Anything that takes complication out of the equation is a plus,” says Purdue’s Erickson. “But the industry is looking for more automation, for technologies that can make decisions in a split second, apply the correct amount of product, and move on to the next equation, without that much input required from the user. Those systems are out there now, and more are coming.”

Furthermore, the level of understanding regarding what benefits precision agriculture brings to the marketplace should keep expanding. In fact, this is perhaps the biggest change taking place within the industry, says GROWMARK’s Parks. “I describe it this way: agriculture used to be like going to a basketball game and not keeping score,” he says. “After 40 minutes, how would you know which team was winning under those conditions? Precision agriculture provides a scorecard for the entire industry. When you are dealing with the kind of money as in today’s market, why would you ignore something that can help keep track of where it’s going?”

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