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Published June 04, 2012, 07:57 AM

Precision ag answer man

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — Paul Gunderson has heard it many times: Sure, precision agriculture sounds great, but will it help area farmers make money?

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — Paul Gunderson has heard it many times: Sure, precision agriculture sounds great, but will it help area farmers make money?

Gunderson, who came out of retirement to lead the Dakota Precision Ag Center in Devils Lake, N.D., has been working since 2005 to answer that question, which he frames in two parts.

“Do precision ag technologies work? Do they pay off, in terms of contributing to the net bottom line, for producers on the High Plains?” he says.

His answers: Yes, they work. And, yes, they often, though not always, improve the bottom line.

“Based on our research, we’re seeing an improvement in net return of somewhere between 6 and 16 percent for High Plains growers,” he says.

In other words, a farmer who had been netting $100 per acre will net $106 to $116 per acre by adopting precision agriculture.

“That may not seem like much, but once you approach something like 10 percent, you start cash-flowing all the front-end cost of that technological investment,” he says.

Normally, a producer needs a payback of 6 to 8 percent to justify the cost, Gunderson says.

Farmers who have worked with the Devils Lake center “seem comfortable with our findings, that our findings are pretty close to their own sense of what’s occurring on their farm,” he says.

For now, at least, the center has completed its research into the precise use of seed and crop protection products on the High Plains. It’s moved into other areas of work, including developing online precision ag training modules and a slurry injection tool that injects liquid manure into a field utilizing the same mapping methods used with commercial fertilizer.

“We have a lot of beef cattle (in North Dakota) and even the dairy industry in this state makes extensive use of manure,” he says. “We’re going to have to go to injection technologies. We have to do so from a public health perspective.”

Gunderson hopes the online precision training modules will be ready by fall.

“I wish I could tell them (farmers and agronomists interested in precision ag) that it’s on our website right now. The data is all there, but we’re still assembling it,” he says.

The center’s website is www.dakotaprecisionagcenter.com.

Gunderson also is interested in developing a college program that offers a two-year degree focusing on precision ag.

Precision ag in forefront

Precision agriculture is one of the hottest, most talked-about topics in U.S. agriculture.

There are countless definitions of precision ag. But at its core, it fine-tunes management of specific areas of a farm or ranch instead of taking a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach. The goal is using technology to reduce inputs, improve profitability and protect the environment.

Some of the tools used in precision ag are GPS, yield maps, auto-guidance equipment, variable-rate technology and sensor technology.

Strong crop prices and rising input costs encourage farmers to make greater use of precision ag, experts say.

Up-to-date statistics on the use of precision ag in the United States are hard to come by.

A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which relied heavily on data from 2005 and 2006, found adoption of the main precision ag tools has been “mixed.”

The use of yield monitors, often a first step in the adoption of precision ag by grain crop farmers, rose to 40 to 45 percent of U.S. corn and soybean acres in 2005 and ’06, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service.

However, farmers have been slower to adopt other precision ag tools, the report said.

“Some of the possible factors behind this adoption lag include farm operator education, technical sophistication and farm management acumen,” the report said.

‘Cautious’ on High Plains

Gunderson describes farmers on the High Plains as “cautious” in their adoption of precision ag.

Some producers with relatively small farms wonder if they can justify the cost of precision ag technology.

Such farmers should consider retrofitting existing farm equipment with precision ag technology, which would hold down the cost, Gunderson says.

“If you do that (retrofit), you can make it work,” he says.

Farmers with modest acreage also should consider hiring a custom operator to do their planting, he says.

Admittedly, farmers can lose some control of when their crops are planted, since a custom operator isn’t always available when a farmer wants to plant, Gunderson says.

Still, hiring a custom operator would allow the use of precision agriculture by some farmers who otherwise couldn’t afford it, he says.

Benefits of precision ag

The Devils Lake center, originally named the Dakota Center for Technology-Optimized Agriculture, is part of North Dakota state government’s Center of Excellence program. Each center is intended to be a hub of research and development on college and university campuses across the state.

The Dakota Ag Precision Center is on the campus of Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, N.D.

The center has two full-time staff members, Gunderson and program coordinator Melinda Martin, and several interns. It partners with ag equipment dealers, software vendors and computer technology experts, among others, to advance the use and popularity of precision ag.

Bill Ongstad, a Harvey, N.D., farmer and a partner in Precision Ag Results, a precision ag business in Maddock, N.D., has followed the research conducted by the Devils Lake center. He says the research is in line with the results of precision ag use on his own farm.

In his operation, “We use 10 percent less inputs and have 10 percent higher yields” through the use of precision ag, he says. “Those numbers can be hard to prove, but we know they’re true.”

Ongstad raises wheat, corn, soybeans and pinto beans.

The benefits of precision ag include not double-seeding corn, which cuts costs and improves yields, and applying the right amount of fertilizer to minimize lodging in wheat, he says.

Government agencies and the general public increasingly expect farmers to minimize agriculture’s impact on the environment, and precision ag can help do that, he says.

By applying inputs more efficiently, “We’re not wasting, we’re not polluting,” Ongstad says.

Environmental aspects

Gunderson also points to environmental considerations as a reason to adopt precision ag.

“In the long run, we’re going to have to discover how to raise crops with less water and less synthetic inputs. That’s just the way it’s going to have to be,” he says.

Precision agriculture can help farmers do that, Gunderson says.

For example, “Typically, except for canola, in about three years we can reduce the use of synthetic fertilizer by 20 to 30 percent,” he says. “And we don’t see any reductions in yields.”

What about older farmers who say it doesn’t make sense for them to move into precision ag?

“The only advice I would have for them is that if you’re satisfied with the way things are moving right now, do nothing,” he says.

“But remember that the environmental standards will stiffen,” which strengthens the case for precision ag, he says.

Crop insurance costs are driving the need for more documentation, further strengthening the case for precision ag, he says.

“With precision ag technology, you know exactly what was applied, when it was applied, where it was applied and who did it,” he says.

Career switch

Gunderson was retired before moving to North Dakota to lead the Devils Lake center. Previously, he worked primarily in the area of human health and agriculture.

His resume includes serving as director of the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wis., from 1991 to 1996 and again from 1998 until 2000.

He’s remained involved in the area of agricultural safety, helping to write the United Nations’ “Code of Practice for Safety and Health in Agriculture,” which was released this winter.

The 312-page code was published by the International Labour Organization, the U.N. agency that drafts and oversees international labor standards. The code is a framework, not a law, designed to improve working conditions.

Gunderson, 71, says he’s enjoying his career in precision ag.

He says he’s “young enough to understand and remain enthusiastic about all of this microprocessor-based technology making its way into production agriculture and improving the lives of producers and their employees, and reducing the environmental footprint of conventional agricultural practices.”

Though North Dakota traditionally has been an agricultural state, the oil boom in the western part of the state has grabbed headlines and public attention nationwide.

But the importance of agriculture and precision ag shouldn’t be overlooked, Gunderson says.

“Once that (oil) is gone, and those finite resources are fully extracted, we’re back to production agriculture. Because that’s renewable, every year,” he says.

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