Precision farming

New technology always seems to start out looking like more trouble than it’s worth –remember the time and effort early zero-tillers put into building and fixing their own seeding equipment? Precision farming, except for guidance, seems to have been stuck at that level for even longer.

GPS guidance, with or without autosteer, is almost a no-brainer if you have any amount of field work to do. Machinery salesmen everywhere marvel at how fast it’s been adopted. But, overlaps and misses with costly seed and sprays can cover the cost in a single year and after a long day in a tractor you can think straight.

Finding the benefits to precision farming has been tougher, but Farmer’s Edge has developed a complete package of electronics and satellite images they process into information you can use. It includes everything from plant growth staging for a specific spot while working with you to figure where your fertilizer dollars are best spent as well as spotting the first signs of disease or pest damage.

“We see the complete precision farming package as good value for our clients,” says Jay Bruggencate, Alberta director for Farmer’s Edge. “I call it the EASY button for precision farming.

“We recently partnered with Blackbridge to access images from many satellites. That means we don’t lose anything if there’s cloud cover when a satellite passes over this area – we have almost constant coverage.”

One advantage of satellite images are that you can access a whole library of images, going back several years and generally converted into NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) so you can start out with a history for any field. That’s crucial for a base map – the first tool for identifying production zones within a field.  Also, near infra-red images show plant vigour across a field. From there you can add yield maps, grid soil testing or soil test different zones, maybe get soil conductivity indices (NDVI) from images from other years can tell you whether the pattern is due to topography, or some other innate characteristic of the field or something else, like disease or a pest invasion.

Mapping plant productivity is only step 1 in the precision farming game. Getting useful information calls for more layers of maps – topography, soil types, anything that could be affecting crop growth, so you can investigate why some areas are more or less productive than others. Then, you can decide how to manage the different areas – whether it’s best to try and amend the less productive areas or put more resources into getting top yields from the better parts of the field.

Once the decisions are made, applying the right rates of various inputs to the irregularly shaped production zones calls for prescription maps, rate controllers that follow the prescriptions and record applications – more computer work, wiring, checking monitors.

Farmer’s Edge has brought together all these technologies into a relatively low-cost land analysis system and married it to the skills of individual agronomists.

“We’ll do all the computer work, manage the technology and we can even provide the drivers, monitors and wire the tractor,” says Bruggencate. His company uses a system called Farm Command to track field such as time and date, application.rates, position of equipment, task, input supplies, labor costs, hours, service records, production histories, all the things you’d note in a field book. It also records tractor chassis information – fuel burned, fuel levels, engine RPM, GPS coordinates, heading, slippage, diagnostic trouble codes, engine hours, ground speed, pressure readings, depreciation, PTO, working state – it’s a complete black box system. It works with any make of equipment and any implement. It may be more than you need, but there are likely answers to questions you haven’t asked yet.

“Our job is to manage all this background information, keep the technology behind the scenes so you can make better decisions,” says Bruggencate.

“Of course, we can work with you on fertility needs assessments and allocating fertilizer to get the best bang for your buck. Precision farming is all about marrying technology and agronomy. And, the best return depends on the unique situation of each farm.”

“Managing cropland to get the best possible returns from every acre isn’t a substitute for good agronomy,” says Bruggencate.

“Precision cropping is not a silver bullet, if you’re already at a high level of management, weed issues under control, seeding on time – getting all the details right and getting high levels of production – precision management can be the next step up. I believe 90 percent of our clients benefit from precision cropping, either in higher yields or by cutting costs.”

Like other high-tech systems, precision farming technology is getting better and costing less.

“Every year, we have sharper images, we’re better able to refine maps,” says Bruggencate. “We’ve been able to make our service more cost-effective, with prices cut by more than half and we’ve added weather stations – one for every 2,500 acres for another layer of data.

“But, all that data is useless unless we’re turning it into information so you can make better decisions that lead to better returns. As an example, we can use weather data within a mile or so to say exactly when a field is at the ideal stage for fungicide protection. Satellite images can show the first signs of disease coming into a field so you can use different rates of fungicide or spray just part of a field.”

Some precision technology can be useful even if precision farming isn’t for you. Satellite images can give you a better understanding of land you’re considering renting or buying, even grassland you’re considering cropping. More information might affect your plans or help in negotiating a price.

What really matters is information – that’s your raw data, processed by context, relevance and priority, and presented in a manner that producers can use to make decisions.

Too much data, not enough information. As Bruggencate sees it, there’s the crop industry’s key problem with precision agriculture in a nutshell.

“Our clients tell us they want to get work done on the farm, not manage and maintain data and try to turn it into information,” says he says. “They want to have the data turned into information before it comes to them, in order to support their decision-making.”

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