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Published December 19, 2011, 05:42 PM

Progress toward precision?

Experts: Owning precision tools doesn’t mean adaptation. Although farmers are buying lots of precision farming tools built into their farm machinery, only about 10 percent are moving beyond auto-steer and guidance, and using the tools as decision-makers for variable-rate fertilizer and chemical applications.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Although farmers are buying lots of precision farming tools built into their farm machinery, only about 10 percent are moving beyond auto-steer and guidance, and using the tools as decision-makers for variable-rate fertilizer and chemical applications.

That’s the message from some precision agriculture experts who spoke recently at the Northern Ag Expo at the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D. They say that environmental regulators eventually will require more precision in agricultural applications, so farmers should start using them now.

Auto-steer or guidance technology has been easy to catch on because farmers can quickly calculate the cost savings from not overlapping applications. But variable-rate applications within fields, based on yield variance within the areas are less provable and offer a lower level of gratification.

Among the more candid about the adaptation is Lanny Faleide, president of Agri ImaGIS Technologies of Fargo. The company provides remote sensing services to the agricultural community. The company has developed an e-commerce website called SATSHOT.com to deliver satellite imagery to farmers, with software to analyze and make decisions on variable-rate applications of chemicals and fertilizer.

“How do you find the areas to apply inputs to be more environmentally friendly, and gain economic efficiencies?” Faleide says. “We all know where the (problem or high-production) areas are, we just can’t figure out how to put them ‘in the tractor’ effectively and efficiently.”

Decision-making advances

Faleide estimates that perhaps 50 percent of farmers are using “auto-steer,” but “I don’t call that precision-ag,” he says.

He says he still has farmers coming to him about using data-intensive approaches, but often say they want to “try it out” on a quarter-section of land, when they farm 30 quarters.

He asks why — if he or she can make money on one quarter — won’t the farmer use it on all 30 quarters?

Information is increasingly available on smart phones, so farmers can make quicker, better-informed decisions.

“We’re talking to John Deere and others to bring this information right into the controller, automatically,” Faleide says. “That needs to be done to make this easier for you, but you also have to figure out how to take this yourself and make your own decisions.”

Farmers nowadays can “grab the field” information from a smart phone and use a three-dimensional product to map their fields, like Google Earth does. The information can be accessed on the web, and on an iPad.

“We’re tying this information together and the phone becomes the telemetric solution,” he says.

Topography and vegetation amounts are two major considerations for making a decision.

In the Agri ImaGIS program, the company subscribes the field into its system. As soon as the satellite image of that field hits its servers, the farmer gets an automatic notice, a “quick view” and then a report, either by email or exported directly to the controller, to the phone, or to an iPad.

“You can go walk into a field, find the location, and see the latest image and analyze it and scout it,” Faleide says. “With this new high-resolution imagery of 5 meters, we see all the anomalies here, so we can easily determine where the areas are.”

No 10 percent tractors

Faleide is clearly anxious for quicker technology adaption than he is currently seeing.

“How many of you guys have a new tractor that you are using it on 10 percent of your acres?” he asks. “None of us. How come we’re not doing precision ag across 100 percent of our acres?”

He says there will be a cost to waiting. “There will be a cost-price squeeze again, but when will you be ready? Are we going to have $7 per bushel corn forever? Are we going to manage our costs now, so we’ll be ready for the cost-price squeeze?”

“We want the gadgets in our machines and I’m really grateful that the companies have all of this stuff in here, but the issue is, we’d better start using it,” he says. “And we’d better have better risk management to get through all of these cycles that we’re going to be facing in the future.”

John Nowatzki, an agricultural machine systems specialist with North Dakota State University in Fargo, moderated a panel on variable-rate technology and commented on the perceived slow adoption pace.

“I think part of it is, it is a lot of technology and you have to learn it,” Nowatzki said. “Secondly, farmers are making a profit without it. They’re making a good profit over the last several years. That’s been slowing down the variable-rate technology, because farmers are making $200 to $300 an acre net income, so if they can increase that by 5 or 10 percent, using variable rates, they’re not real interested.”

The results can vary with fields, Nowatzki says.

Insufficient research

One presenter talked about using different varieties of soybeans within the same field — particularly varieties that are tolerant to high salts.

“I think part of the issue comes back to how do I really get a map, how do I really get zones that are reliable. It just takes a lot of computer and GIS work to do that,” Nowatzki says.

“In everything else that farmers do in terms of their inputs, they can go to a seed company, fertilizer company or the universities and get some good research — research (that’s) done on plots and is replicable. But variable-rate cannot be done on plots. It has to be field research. And when you do field research you can’t control the variables, so the universities have been reluctant to do the research. I think we’re seeing a lot more variable-rate research on smaller plots” and in smaller-acreage crops such as citrus, he says.

Nowatzki says farmers are reluctant to put high amounts of fertilizers on areas of fields that may or may not pay back — and likely wouldn’t.

“If you have a 160-acre field and one area hardly ever produces anything because it’s (an) alkali spot, or high saline, in the past we’d say, ‘We don’t have any way of turning the fertilizer off in that area,’ so we just keep putting it on. But if we really had a thinner margin of profit or had a situation where there wasn’t going to be a safety net for farmers from the government, I think we’d see more of it,” Nowatzki says.

Prevented-planting crop insurance, for example, has an effect on precision farming use.

“If you have a 160-acre field and 10 of those acres get drowned out, you can put them on ‘prevent-plant,’ even though you might otherwise just go over the whole field. I think our government programs have made it so that it’s made it more profitable to fail,” and less incentive to adopt new tools, he says.

Nowatzki wonders whether the current emphasis in Congress on reducing the national debt will translate into less government safety net support and a turn toward more aggressive technology adaptation.

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