Thrive in Volatile Times – Guaranteed Success in Precision Ag

January 24, 2017

Trimble Precision Ag

As farmers contemplate the upcoming planting season, many are wondering how to measure the value of on-farm technology investments — especially when it comes to adopting precision ag practices.

The key? Good assessment. Check out these 4 tips that will act as a great measuring stick for guiding investment decisions this crop year.

Markus Braaten, manager of agronomic precision services with the Agri-Trend Knowledge Team, says farmers moving toward precision management are best to remember that precision ag is as much about agronomy as technology.

“With enough cash, it’s easy to become an early adopter in farming. This industry has been advancing at lightning speed in recent years, with new and innovative technology hitting the market on a daily basis,” says Braaten. “For growers, just keeping up can be a challenge — let alone finding the time to conduct the research and running the ROI calculations required to make good buying decisions.”

To help growers navigate this field, Braaten has outlined a method for measuring the potential benefits of investing in a long-term precision management strategy for your farm.

Often, he says, it comes down to one question: What agronomic benefits would this new technology bring? In the end, technology is just a tool that may or may not improve crop yield, crop quality and, as a result, your bottom line.

1. Agronomics as a Measuring Stick

It’s easy to become enamoured with new technology, but don’t allow it to override the importance of solid agronomics as you evaluate investments in your precision management strategy.

Let’s begin with a clear understanding of what precision ag means. It is a farm management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to variability in crops both among fields, and within fields.

Crop variability typically has both a spatial and temporal component, which makes statistical/computational treatments quite involved.

The ‘holy grail’ of precision agriculture research will be the ability to define a Decision Support System (DSS) for whole-farm management, with the goal of optimizing returns on inputs while preserving resources.

The reality today is that seemingly simple concepts such the ability to define management zones — areas where different management practices will apply — for a single crop type on a single field over time can be a difficult task. Many growers are turning to crop advisors who specialize in this area, and employ farm data software that helps produce smart, cost-saving data-driven decisions.

2. Understanding the difference between Precision Ag and VRT

First, let’s challenge one of the most common myths in precision ag — i.e., that it is the same as VRT. Precision management strategies may include Variable Rate Technology, but it’s only one aspect of the overall plan.

Often in the agriculture industry, PA and VR are used interchangeably. Also, many growers assume that adopting a precision strategy means immediately switching to VR nitrogen, for example.

Indeed, this may be the way to go. But first the grower must determine yield variability across the field, by answering the following questions:

  • Does this field have significant yield variability?
  • What’s driving that variability?
  • What’s the most appropriate course of action to address this variability?

Until these questions are answered, it’s impossible to determine whether VR application will pay off. For example, maybe this analysis will reveal that a section of the field shouldn’t be farmed at all — that the most economical use would be pasture land. In such a case, VR would be a waste of money.

3. Viewing Precision Ag as a Strategic Compromise

VR is rarely, if ever, going to be a universal fit for every acre on your farm. The value of commodities is constantly changing, as are the costs of seed and inputs. Regular ROI calculations are essential.

This is why understanding yield variability is so important. If it ranges from 20 to 120 bu/ac across one field, precision ag strategies will pay off more than in a field where the yield variability is next to nil.

You could consider PA as a strategic compromise. With limited time and resources, growers must make choices about when, where and how to use them. Some soil issues, such as managing potassium, will happen over the long term. Others, such as managing nitrogen, sulphur and other mobile nutrients, will be hands-on every year.

But in all cases, the effort extended on each zone will depend on its yield potential. Zones that could produce 160 bu/ac deserve more attention than those with a capacity to grow a 20 bu/ac crop regardless of interventions.

4. Understanding the Limits of Soil Testing and Grid Sampling

Often, the factors impacting the productivity of a field or zone are beyond our control, i.e. they are a function of depth of profile, water holding capacity, topography, drainage, etc.

Growers moving into precision ag tend to want to start with soil test, but it may not be necessary. Soil tests are excellent tools that are best used when landscape-type barriers are not present.

In the U.S., many precision ag strategies are based on grid sampling. For US$5 an acre, they get access to field data and prescription maps.

But the blanket approach may not be the best approach. First, there are places in the field that, due to landscape limitations, may not require a soil test. Second, there is a danger in that if you build a fertility program that uses yield potential based on soil tests alone, it will not be accurate or cost-effective. If low productivity is a function of something other than soil fertility — something that cannot be fixed — then the grower will not want to utilize resources in that area.

5. Begin by Measuring Biomass

Once growers decide to move forward with precision ag, they’ll want to begin by focussing on what is causing variability across their fields.

The best indicator for this is biomass, or the biological material derived from living organisms, a key indicator of productivity.

PowerZone maps are particularly suited to capturing an accurate measure of biomass across a field. They provide information on productivity variability over a number of years. If landscape issues are causing low productivity in certain areas, this will be revealed on the PowerZone maps.


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