Going Green

Friday, August 24, 2007

Precision Farming

Today’s crop varieties have tremendous genetic potential to produce yields far above those normally realized in production practice. Unlocking this potential could have significant impact on our economy as well as on the financial well-being of America’s farmers. It has been estimated that a 1% improvement in farming efficiency results in a $2 billion annual impact on the gross national product of the country.

Scientists have been working since the introduction of large-scale farming in the early part of the last century to improve farming efficiency and to increase yields. The benefit to the consumer is cheaper food. The benefit to the farmer is improved potential for profitable operation.

Many of the newest advances in farming efficiency in recent years are in the area of Precision Agriculture (PA). PA is a broad term that encompasses many aspects of farming rolled into a holistic approach to improved efficiency. Historically, because of the need to operate on a large scale for economic efficiency, farmers have managed on a field or whole farm basis. This type of management allowed them to utilize large-scale mechanized devices with a minimum of labor. The technique did not allow for the variability within a field or across a farm of such factors as soil type, slope, weed infestations, nutrient availability, insect infestations, water availability, and so on. PA is an attempt to manage for the variability in these factors.

With the availability of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to agriculture which began in the early 1990’s, it suddenly became possible to manage crop production on a smaller scale. Rather than looking at averages for a field, the farmer could look at smaller units such as the acre. This afforded the opportunity to manage seed rates and fertilizer application more closely to the specific soil types in each area of a field. Such micro-level management creates the possibility of increasing yields while simultaneously lowering input costs.

Coupling GPS technologies with soil mapping and variable rate computer controlled planting equipment allows the farmer to adjust plant spacing to optimize for soil conditions. This might result in denser planting in flat alluvial type soils and perhaps wider plant spacing on slopes where moisture availability and thin soils will not support a denser plant population. When traditionally farmed on an average planting rate for the field, plants would be too dense on the slope and too sparse on the flat alluvial soil.

The same concept applies to fertilization. When coupled with soil nutrient and type mapping, application rates for Nitrogen or other fertilizers can be varied based on the conditions of narrowly defined areas within a field. Fertilization rates will need to be adjusted for plant densities such as in the areas discussed previously.

When applied to pivot irrigation systems, the mapping technology can be used to adjust flow rate and speed of travel depending on specific points in a field. This will provide more efficient and effective application of water with a minimum of runoff.

The equipment for implementing a PA program on a farming operation is expensive but is rapidly becoming more economical. The costs will vary according to the farmer’s existing equipment and practices and potential benefits will depend on the specific enterprises.

The potential benefits of PA extend beyond the improved efficiency for those farming operations that are able to utilize it. By more closely controlling fertilizer, pesticide and water application, there may be a favorable impact on the environment. By reducing the excess application of fertilizer or pesticides, the likelihood of runoff into adjacent streams and playas is virtually eliminated. The overall environment will benefit.

Precision Agriculture will continue to evolve as new technologies are developed. It will be integral to the leadership position that American farmers continue to enjoy in the world.


Ranando said...

I think the farmers that really have precision farming down are the Amish.

Am I wroung?

Panhandle Poet said...

The Amish seem to apply a great deal of wisdom to their use of the land. Their approach is low-tech though. Probably the best primitive example of precision farming was the use of fish as fertilizer in mounds of corn plantings by native Americans. They adjusted the number of fish to the particular soil conditions. Precision agriculture today is based on computers, satellite imagery and highly advanced equipment suitable to large-scale agriculture.

ptg said...

Great blog idea. Most city folks have no idea how sophisticated modern ag has become. I can recall when the only electronics on the tractor was an old car radio. Now its more like a cockpit than a tractor seat.

Panhandle Poet said...

Thanks, PTG.

bigwhitehat said...

Precision farming sounds like an oxymoron. Sort of like precision gambling.

Putting the language aside, this is an interesting topic. It makes a lot of sense when we are talking about soil and irrigation. This can make things more precise.

The ethical side of this is interesting too. The obligation to use technology to be proper stewards of creation is pretty huge. I feel that has existed all along and we are required by our Creator to invent things that help.

Things are much more complicated than when crop rotation was the extent of good stewardship.

Too bad the market is still all guesswork.

Texas Red said...

Good post. I'll have to let my husband read this...