Reclaiming Precision Ag

Posted in: Farming     

It’s one of the most over-used terms in agriculture today. But how many farmers really understand what a properly executed precision management strategy can do for their bottom line? Has ‘precision ag’ become just another marketing term, co-opted by equipment manufacturers and technology start-ups to upsell growers?

 

Lance Lindbloom may look like an average agronomist but he’s really a detective, happiest when he’s scouring for evidence and following intricate trails that ultimately lead him to closer to the truth.

Lindbloom’s discoveries don’t happen in dark alleys or by following the fingerprints. His cases unfold within the sprawling wheat fields of Montana’s Golden Triangle.

“What we find for growers who have maybe never done any soil testing before can be a real eye-opener,” says Lindbloom, an Agri-Coach with Agri-Trend, who works out of Torgerson’s near Havre, Montana.

Lindbloom has been shocking his clients a lot lately, and they usually end up thanking him. For growers who are interested in true precision management, Lindbloom will start by showing them some maps of their farmland, usually Google images, a USDA soil map and maybe a PowerZone map, which provides information on productivity zones. The grower quickly agrees soil testing should be done based on the map, to ensure the samples are an accurate reflection of the main production zones.

“If we sample by zone and show them what the soil tests show is there, create a VR prescription, and then compare that to doing a flat-rate application,” asserts Lindbloom. “The most important part of precision ag is that we always have to understand our farmers are in business, and we have to show them ROI.”

Lindbloom comes across many growers who have either tried out ‘precision ag’ tools that came with little or no support and found the technology confusing and frustrating, or sampled something for a short time that showed little impact on returns, and quit.

“Most equipment today has the technology built-in, but it’s a matter of utilizing it,” he says. “It can be very difficult for farmers to do that on their own because it’s always changing. Imagine if you only used your smartphone twice a year and always during a time when there is a lot of pressure for it to run smoothly, and then you see there have been updates and changes to the system.”

Lindbloom estimates that less than 10 percent of growers in his area are using variable-rate technology. However, over 50 percent have moved into what he describes as ‘precision agronomy’ — a management approach that goes beyond just VR.

“Most times when you speak about precision growers think VR, but it is much more than that. It can be a simple as precision soil sampling as a way of defining what their fertility management should be. Another example would be defining plant populations — getting away from ‘pounds-per-acre of available seed’ to using optimal plant density. I consider that to be part of precision management, so it’s about moving them more to this mindset.”

The Precision Management Mindset

Markus Braaten has been spreading the word about this Precision Management Mindset to growers for over a decade. The Manager of Agronomy Services for Agri-Trend’s Knowledge Team. has developed a particular awareness of the misinformation surrounding precision ag, and wants to change it.

“What growers think is precision ag differs widely,” he says. “With some growers it’s all about, ‘Okay I have guidance in auto-steer therefore I’m doing precision ag’. Others say, ‘We are doing some VR application with my retailer so I’m doing precision ag’, or, ‘I’ve got a yield monitor on my combine, now I’m doing precision ag’.”

Each statement may be true to some degree, depending on the grower’s overall management strategy — but they all miss the bigger picture.

“In my mind, precision ag is understanding that we have a variable yield potential driving the need for variable management,” says Braaten. “It’s not about ‘VR Everything’ or the latest VR technology — it’s acknowledging the fact that we have variable yield potential across the farm, which requires me to develop a variable strategy that incorporates the right management in the right place.”

 

Some of those places are more productive than others, and Lindbloom’s favourite part of his detective work is discovering a client’s “All-Star” zones.

When growers first understand their productivity zones, their first instinct is to improve the lower-producing areas. But that’s not the only option, says Lindbloom.

“If we can’t economically change a lower producing zone, we have to look at the other side,” he explains. “How can we reduce the inputs we put in those areas or — and this is the really powerful point — can we redirect them to some of our higher producing areas and get even higher yields.”

None of those decisions can be made until the grower has a good handle on his farm’s yield variability, says Braaten. “If we don’t start there — if we too quickly jump to, say, VR phosphorous application without knowing the impact — is it just then a feel-good pass?”

Most savvy growers don’t have the time or money for feel-good farming practices. Rather, they make the effort to understand and refine what Braaten says is perhaps the most important metric in farming today: Cost per Unit Production by Zone.

“This is a function of your cost by zone and your productivity by zone,” Braaten explains. “You need to know how many bushels you’re growing by zone, and what it is costing your to grow those bushels by zone.”

Once this is known, the rest is easy. That’s why to Braaten, good precision management is a decision of economics as much as agronomics.

“As a grower, if I truly buy into this concept of variable yield potential necessitating the need for variable management, I must always ask myself: What is the ROI of this management practice? Does it make sense to deploy it in this zone? Does it make sense to invest this dollar in this zone and return $3 dollars, or does it make more sense to invest it in a higher producing zone? We can be quick to jump to the data set we’re most comfortable with, but it’s about knowing the right numbers and making decisions based on that.”

While cost-per-unit by zone is a relatively new concept now, Braaten believes it will shape the future of sustainable farming. “If we discover the ‘fix’ costs and see we’ll never produce profitable bushels, it’s a different question. Now it’s about how to minimize losses in this zone, or do you even want to farm this zone?”

  

PA: Economic and Environmental Win-Win

 

Precision ag and environmental sustainability have always been inextricably linked, according to Dr. Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.

Lowenberg-DeBoer’s focus on PA began when the Purdue Ag extension office became overwhelmed with queries from growers about whether or not they should be investing in new technologies promoted as precision ag. “There had never been a lot of research money attached to it so we did some work just to be able to respond to them.”

His discoveries revealed an even larger economic benefit to PA than he imagined. “There are major economic implications of precision ag and it’s not always about making more money on those areas — sometimes it’s about knowing you’re better off bypassing them altogether. And with greater economic analysis, more of that is going on — which is good for the land, too.”

Lowenberg-DeBoer says precision ag as a management practice is following the same adoption trend as no-till farming. The environmental benefits with both are substantial, but it was the reduction of labour costs and equipment wear-and-tear that ultimately pushed growers into no-till. In some regions it was regulated, but adoption was largely driven by economics.

“Environmental benefits come with economic savings or regulatory requirements, that’s how it works,” says Lowenberg-DeBoer. “We’ve seen this in Europe, where technologies and practices were adopted because the EU put strict limits on the amount of nitrogen that can be applied to farmland. Growers want to make sure they don’t exceed the limits and get fined, and more precisely they want to make sure the nitrogen they use goes where it needs to go.”

He wonders if more regulation would spur adoption, benefiting both growers and the environment. In terms of adoption of PA, he says North America is “just at the beginning.” Some growers use GPS guidance and auto steer, but other precision ag tools are less common, he notes.

“It can be too complicated and too costly, compared to a scenario where we had good sensors and good algorithms that could relate current nutrient levels with application — and was as easy to use as auto steer,” he says. “This would lead to widespread adoption of precision ag and all the environmental benefits that would bring.”

Barring such governance regulations, the other option is to create technology that is affordable and easy to use that achieves economic as well as environmental benefits.

Corporate farmers often become easy targets for the environmental movement, but these special interest groups may be missing the mark. “All of us in ag have experienced pushback from the environmental community and consumers, but there’s a school of thought that says, the group making the most progress and greatest effort currently is large-scale ag — because of this move into precision management,” he says. “Unfortunately not all of those benefits are well-documented. It would be much better if we had more evidence showing, for example, how much does VR application actually reduce nitrates in groundwater.”

Lowenberg-DeBoer says one advance that would improve overall adoption of PA would be to make the data collection and analysis simpler. “We have to face the fact that most yield monitor data simply doesn’t get used, he says. “It’s too difficult and farmers don’t have the time or skills to do it.”

If there were more automation and less reliance on humans, say via algorithms, the process could be much more streamlined.

At the end of the day, we are are reminded that the American Society of Agronomy defines sustained agriculture as a practice that, ‘over the long term, enhances environmental quality and the resource base in which agriculture depends, provides for basic human food and fiber need, is economically viable, and enhances the quality of life for farmers and the society as a whole.”

 

Inspiring words for us all.


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