Precision ag tools help bottom line when used correctly

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- If you're looking for a way to save the farm in a tough market, buying a drone probably isn't going to help you, said Terry Griffin, cropping systems economist at Kansas State University.

Terry Griffin, a cropping systems economist at Kansas State University, spoke about profitability of precision agriculture on the first day of the Precision Ag Summit in Jamestown, N.D., on Jan. 16, 2017. Cody Rogness/Agweek

JAMESTOWN, N.D. - If you're looking for a way to save the farm in a tough market, buying a drone probably isn't going to help you, said Terry Griffin, cropping systems economist at Kansas State University.

Griffin, one of the speakers at the sixth annual Precision Ag Summit held Jan. 16 and 17 at the Farmers Union Conference Center, said precision agriculture tools can help make producers' lives easier, and when used properly can help them make choices to improve their bottom lines.

But this isn't the best time to look at buying new equipment. Instead, it's a good time to learn to use the technologies that came with the equipment purchased when prices were high a few years ago, he said.

"This is your time to invest in human capital," he said.

The Precision Ag Summit drew 260 attendees, on par with past years, said Delore Zimmerman, executive director of the Red River Valley Research Corridor, which organizes the event. The summit featured speakers, exhibits, breakout sessions and networking opportunities.


"The theme of it is taking all this technology and trying to turn it into profitability in these times of low commodity prices," said Mark Watne, president of North Dakota Farmers Union, which also is involved in putting on the conference. North Dakota State University Extension Service and Dakota Precision Ag Center also are involved in organizing the event.

David Schimmelpfennig, precision ag program leader at U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, analyzes the department's Agricultural Resource and Management Survey questions on farmer use of information technologies. His session at the Precision Ag Summit discussed the adoption rate of technologies and how that has affected farms.

As might be expected, adoption of precision ag technologies increases with the acreage of the farm.

"It's double the adoption rate between large and small farms," Schimmelpfennig said.

For any size operations, unpaid labor tends to go down with implementation of precision agriculture tools, he said. However, large farms and small farms seem to be using the technology differently.

Small farms that use precision agriculture are spending less money on machinery than ones that do not, while large farms that use precision agriculture are spending more on machinery. Hired labor goes up on large farms using precision agriculture, while spending on custom services goes up for small farms that have adopted the technology.

Schimmelpfennig said it would appear that on smaller acreage farms, producers are finding ways to equip existing machinery with precision ag tools. They learn to do what they can and hire service providers to fill in the gaps.

"The small farmer is doing it themselves and figuring out precision technologies," Schimmelpfennig said.


On larger acreage farms, producers may be more likely to buy new equipment and hire their own teams to act in the place of service providers, he surmised.

But no matter the size of the farm or what precision ag tools are implemented, the ARMS data shows that input costs, like fertilizer, pesticide, seed and fuel, decrease with the use of precision ag technologies, Schimmelpfennig said.

Griffin said precision agriculture technologies are all about using data to create efficiencies, something that is especially important in today's market. The large crowd at the summit shows the interest farmers have in embracing new ways of using data and technology, he said.

Mark Huso, a crop consultant from Lakota, N.D., attended his third Precision Ag Summit this year. He comes to the summit to gain confidence that he and his clients are moving in the right direction and taking advantage of the tools available to them.

Huso said farmers have always used a "blanket approach" to farming, throwing fertilizer or fungicide onto fields. Farms should be managed on a variable scale, which is enabled by precision ag tools, he said.

Agriculture always has been slow to adapt, Huso said, but he's excited about what the future holds. Raj Khosla, a professor of precision agriculture at Colorado State University, was the keynote speaker at the summit, and he told the crowd that sensors that could give plant-level data to farmers are about two years away from commercial availability. Huso finds that scary - and terrific.

"It's changing very quickly," he said.

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