The Precision Farming Primer  
by Grant Mangold

© 1999
Precision Farming Primer

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When Adam and Eve first picked up a hoe in the Garden of Eden, they practiced site-specific agriculture—planting seeds, nurturing the plants and harvesting the yields. With an innate desire to know and to do, mankind has progressed past placing a dead fish in every hill of corn, beans and squash. Now when farmers or ranchers reach into a toolbox, they find bits and bytes and satellite parts along with sockets sets and drill bits. Computers connect combines and crop input applicators to databases driven by the geo-referenced data processed through geographic information systems (GIS) applications.

Tracing the effect of site-specific farm management requires a look at where the industry has been, where it is and where it’s headed. Harnessing the technologies that make precision farming possible promises to empower farmers to meet the economic and ecological objectives of their farm businesses.

Traditional Agriculture

Many modern agricultural producers have spent their careers carefully managing family farms that go back generations. At the heart of precision farming lies site-specific management, which involves the ability to collect and control information to accurately and appropriately address parts of fields for actual needs, rather than whole fields for average needs. Site-specific managers can use information technologies (IT) to turn their data into decisions.

Such farmers follow a precise process, acquiring raw data, analyzing derived information, adding related knowledge and applying the results with wisdom. They depend on precise devices to deliver precise data to determine precise advice. This requires them to inventory practical variability within their fields, investigate probable causes, instigate possible solutions to address management opportunities on a site-specific basis and evaluate the whole process. Farmers finally have tools for real-time, on-farm research. As a result, they have the potential to produce food and fiber more efficiently.

Current Capabilities

Precision farming allows today’s agricultural producers, advisors and researchers to integrate IT with numerous field and office activities. Such tools include GIS, the global positioning system (GPS), remote sensing, on-the-go sensors, monitors and controllers. For example, it’s possible today to meter out multiple crop-protection products to specific sites through irrigation systems and applicators with on-the-go sensors as well as track yield and crop quality with growth-simulation software, sensors and remote imaging. Data collected remotely or on-site can be sent via new telecommunication capabilities for near real-time analysis. As a result, farmers now have new tools to predict the outcome of site-specific management¾ weather permitting.

But how many farmers actually use these new technologies?

  • That figure is up from 10,000 in 1996, 4,400 in 1995, 1,200 in 1994, 300 in 1993 and about 50 in 1992.
  • Worldwide, there are perhaps 20,000 on-the-go yield monitors. That’s about 3 percent of the world’s combines.
  • About half have GPS capabilities, so the data collected can be turned into maps—a growing trend.
  • If you figure 1,500 acres per monitor (as some manufacturers suggest), or perhaps 25.5 million acres, this would be about 8 percent of North America’s major grains/oilseeds acreage.
  • At about $4,000 per monitor and around $3,000 per GPS unit, about $100 million may be invested in yield monitoring hardware alone.
  • Currently, the acreage under site-specific or variable-rate input application likely runs less than half the yield monitoring figure.
  • Approximately 25 percent provide yield mapping analysis, 15 percent handle yield monitor sales and support, 19 percent offer agronomic interpretation of GPS data, 80 percent sell seed and 51 percent sell enhanced seed.
  • Almost 5 percent can perform variable rate seeding, 84 percent offer custom application services and 50 percent provide variable rate application.
  • Such figures lead one to project an increase in site-specific services.

Focusing in the Future

Behind every technology is a philosophy. Most farmers adopt site-specific technologies the following reasons:

Future farmers will be plugged into the planet as never before. They’ll use conduits of digital information, piping data to and from their farm fields. They’ll connect with channels of electronic communication, as they forge new links in the farm-to-food chain. And they’ll work in new ways with new communities of suppliers and customers.

They’re not just "farming by the numbers," but they are able to apply more science to the art of farming. They don’t want to become entrapped by data-driven technologies; they expect to be empowered with decision-support tools.

Farmers are more like artists than accountants. Sure, they watch the bottom line. But producing a crop puts all their knowledge and wisdom on the line every year, meeting head-on the risks of products, prices and precipitation. Some precision farmers look for future prescriptions of precisely what to do when. Others expect the development of site-specific "recipes" to work for more farmers, giving them more latitude to put their gray cells in charge of the black boxes running their farms—art with science.

Weather remains the number one variable farmers deal with every day. They can’t control that variable, but they can seek to understand how to plan and manage variability as a fact of business. As a result, farmers are the front-line integrators of information and technology. They’re turning IT and GIS into geographic management systems as part of a toolbox of overall farm management tools and techniques aimed at reducing risk and optimizing efficiency.

This becomes even more important when you consider the future structure of agriculture. The industry is moving toward consolidation and vertical integration, along with the adoption of IT and biotechnology. As a result, there may be fewer farmers. This suggests forward-thinking producers must forge new links on the farm-to-food chain.

"What you know about what you can grow" will become the key to farm management. The agriculture industry will become increasingly involved in planting, growing, harvesting and processing "information" along with value-added crops.

Site-specific management drives farmers to accurate record keeping, which will direct their precision farming decision making. This must be the next transition: from precision farming to appropriate agriculture¾ doing the right thing at the right time in the right place in the right way. Today, the payoff appears to be in the process, rather than in off-the-shelf precision farming products. The economics of the practices are site-specific. What farmers need is "precise advice," which will be determined through more research by farmers, suppliers and universities. At the heart of it all will remain temporal and spatial decision making—made more effective by GIS working in tandem with other spatial information technologies.

Grant Mangold               
Linn Grove, Iowa       
February, 1999  

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