Seeing is Believing in Precision Agriculture: A Tale from the Field of Common Sense

Do you remember your first time? You know, that first variable rate application (VRA) map of one of your farmers’ fields? I certainly remember mine and I was recently reminded that it is a tale deserving to be re-told here as I think it still offers some relevance to our precision ag industry today.

It was in the mid-’90s at a co-op located in southeastern South Dakota. I was the agronomist there and was becoming fascinated about this precision ag “thing”, or site-specific farming as it was commonly referred to back then. It sounded so good in theory and it even made good common sense not to treat the whole field the same because of its variability. We just had to see it to believe it.

Enter Stuart. Stuart was a hog farmer east of town that also shared my curiosity and agreed to let me grid sample a field on his home quarter so we could put these theories to the test. It was a slam dunk – a hog farm on the home quarter typically meant a high amount of nutrients, particularly N, P, and K near the building site, but not so much at the far end of the field (Hey, I also grew up on a hog farm, so I know the art and typical behavioral traits of manure disposal quite well).

The soil test results came back as expected and they completely validated our theory: don’t apply any fertilizer (or very little) in the front half of the field, but DUMP IT on the back half. We didn’t even have a machine that could spread VRA, so we had to find and borrow a machine from another company several hundred miles away just to complete the task.

It was a big day. The multi-binned machine was loaded and entered the field. Several were in attendance with me to witness this inaugural event. That green Loral started at the farm gate and was screaming down the field, dust rolling and very little product just sprinkling out of the boom. Then it hit the “red zone”. The RPM’s suddenly dropped, black smoke started to spew out of the exhaust and massive amounts of product was now pouring out of the boom covering the ground completely. Looks started with surprise, awe, then nods of approval appeared because that’s what it was supposed to do. Best of all, Stuart had a large grin on his face!

We could see the results. It was immediately apparent this precision ag “thing” was going to work. Not only was I excited for the results Stuart was going to see come harvest that fall, I was also looking forward to spreading-the-word across the county at grower meetings over the next several months. Stuart’s field would become the case study I could share and we’d have a line of new prospects ready to give this a try next season. It was a win-win situation! Or was it?

Many years later after I had long left the co-op, Stuart and I crossed paths and we reminisced about that first field and that faithful season. He reminded me of the fact, “that was the worst crop I ever had”! I suddenly remembered why. Sadly, his corn crop was completely wiped out by a hailstorm that summer and all of our hopes for the trophy yield map went out-the-window in a matter of minutes.

That devastating event did not completely ruin our belief, however. The vivid memories of that machine running across that field and Stuart’s grin were all the evidence we needed. We could visibly see the results and we knew we were right, we simply had to wait for another season. It was common sense enabled and demonstrated using technology.

In this day of big data, AI, Blockchain, IoT, and other buzzwords we’re being inundated with, I think it’s just as important we keep common sense at the forefront and we continue to focus on actionable results. Data we can act on and results that we can plainly see. Maybe that will help bring a grin to our faces!

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