Precision Agriculture And The Not-So-Obvious Factors Affecting Production Decisions
Crop production is a seasonal enterprise during which day-to-day decisions are made with a goal of high yield and profitability. Growers develop a preseason strategy for organizing resources in the anticipation of the upcoming season’s production. This strategy is typically expressed as a “plan” of farming practices organized over a growing season. Each practice within a plan is fleshed out in more detail in a “recommendation.” A recommendation, in turn, is converted to a “work order” when the day arrives for its execution. The commitment of materials, equipment, and labor to implement a work order on a particular day depends on a number of factors, most important of which is weather.
With so much activity surrounding the implementation of a work order, it is easy to forget that each implementation is not only dependent on previous decisions but is also impacted by the expected goal of a profitable yield. Furthermore, there are number of obvious and not-so-obvious, non-weather factors that must be accounted for in production decision making. Both types of factors must be addressed in precision agriculture.
Agriculture is first and foremost a business, thus growers must worry about balancing their books. That is, anticipated revenue from harvested produce must be at least equal to the costs associated with its production during a growing season and any carryover debt. Many of these costs, such as for equipment, are prorated across many years. An end-of-season balance sheet reveals whether revenue is equal to or, in the case of a profit, greater than costs. With recent low commodity trading prices for grain crops, many growers are being challenged to make a profit. This challenge results in triaging spending during a growing season. For example, the amount of fertilizer may be reduced to save money. In another example, an in season consulting service may be suspended to eliminate a cost. With one eye on a profitable yield, growers are always evaluating the cost/benefit of each decision and making judgment calls on expenditures throughout a grower season.
Only Part of the Story
The business of agriculture, while most important, is only part of the story for a successful season. There is the marshalling of resources prior to and during a growing season. Equipment must be serviced and ready for operation. Materials, such as fuel, seed, fertilizers, and pesticides must be purchased in advance of planting. Employees must be hired and trained and consultants contracted before the start of a season. Logistics must be in place during a growing season to coordinate and track equipment, materials, and people to ensure each recommendation is implemented as a work order in the right field at the right time. The coordination and tracking of resources includes good record keeping. Knowing what was done and for what reason in one season is invaluable information for future planning.
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Another concern that could impact a successful growing season is regulation. Most people are familiar with occupational regulations, such as wearing the right clothing when making chemical applications in a field and be respectful of entry times after an application. Few people are aware of resource, environmental and marketing regulations. Resource regulations in agriculture have mostly to do with the allocation of water for farming operations. Growers in some parts of the country must compete with other segments of society for a steady supply of water. Consequently, the water requirements for realizing a potentially high yield may not be met during a growing season due to allocation limits.
Environmental regulations in agriculture have mostly to do with proper use of chemicals in a field setting. Crop-specific labels registered with the government provide instructions to growers on the proper application of pesticides in the field. Government monitoring of the environment provide feedback to growers on which practices and materials exasperate the transport of sediments and chemicals from fields into surrounding areas. Environmental regulations vary widely across the country. While many are federally mandated, they are typically enforced by state agencies, which must weigh agricultural concerns against those of the surrounding populace. Market regulations have to do with the testing for contamination before produce enters the food supply chain and the inspecting for pests before produce is moved from one geography to another.
Export barriers may not be an obvious factor when making management decisions during a growing season but they could impact a grower’s ability to market produce. The choice of traditionally bred or genetically-modified organism (GMO) seed can be a deciding factor of whether a country will import a grower’s produce. An indigenous pest in one area of the U.S. may be considered an invasive species in another country thus preventing the export of produce from that area to that country. Certain chemical applications on a crop may be the basis for one country to set up a trade barrier on another. Also, countries may set up a trade barrier by placing tariffs on imports making them uncompetitive with domestic produce.
The Sustainability Question
Another lesser-known factor that is growing in importance is sustainability. Sustainable agriculture is the employment of practices that allow for the efficient use of resources. The ideal situation is to use renewable resources in all practices. However, this is not practical from an implementation and cost standpoint. These constraints aside, growers should strive to use sustainable practices since sustainability is increasingly becoming an important selling point to downstream markets in the food supply chain.
Given their range in importance, how can precision agriculture help a grower account for the various factors affecting production? For one, regardless of the factor, meeting the goal of a profitable yield requires timely information for both preseason and in-season decision-making. Information acquired by a grower through a public channel or private device must to be organized around practices and their associated recommendations. Most information required to support management decisions is accessible over the Internet. Mobile devices such as a smartphone can give a grower access to the Internet and the ability to download applications (apps). Precision agriculture apps are capable of collecting and storing critical information for decision making. They have tools to organize and customize information, such as the selection of crops, pests, products, and other reference data, important for production decisions. This customization tailors an app for ease of use and minimizes the time to select the appropriate information for a decision.
Most precision agriculture software programs today allow a grower to create a plan, recommendation, and work order, along with the ability to exchange data with field equipment, keep records, and run accounting programs to track revenues and costs. Future programs will have to do much more. They will have to provide information for the not-so-obvious factors affecting agricultural production. Information for factors such as a pesticide’s mode of action. Mode of action refers to the means by which an active ingredient in a pesticide interferes with the physiology of a pest. Knowledge of mode of action allows for the selection of pesticides that minimize the development of resistance in a target pest. Future programs will have to track the maximum residue levels (MRLs) of chemicals applied to produce in order to meet the import requirements of a country. The same programs will have to alert growers of the presence of pests that are resistant to particular chemicals, such as glyphosate-resistant weeds.
Future precision agriculture programs will have to give growers the ability to choose among pest control solutions that do not harm pollinators, such as bees. They will have to sort the efficacy of a product according to crop stage, pest stage, and cost. The same programs would have to make the distinction between ground and aerial coverage when supporting an application decision. For nearly all practices, future programs will have to alert growers of materials and actions that are affected by environmental and market regulations. Going one step further, these same programs would have to inform growers on which practice recommendations are sustainable.