Q: Is zone management a fit for my farm?
A: Zone management is one of many precision agriculture practices utilized in farming. In its simplest form, zone management is shutting off the fertilizer in areas of your field that are unproductive. More advanced zone management utilizes precision ag tools like GPS auto steer, yield mapping, auto shutoff and variable-rate applications.
The goal of precision ag is to do things more effectively. Zone management works on the premise of grouping areas into treatment zones based on criteria like salinity (electrical conductivity), texture, topography and/or historical yields. There could be 100 acres in a single management zone or there could be 100 zones within an acre — the point is each zone is treated differently from other zones. Variable-rate fertilizer is the most widely adopted use of zone management with fertilizer rates that are optimized for a specific growing area.
Every field could have a different focus for what optimization means. Yield is often the first thing to come to mind, but profitability is a more appropriate goal. Optimizing profitability with variable-rate fertilizer involves a multi-faceted approach of maximizing yield potential, managing risks of crop lodging or nutrient loss from environmental factors, and synchronizing crop maturity for disease, insect and harvest management.
Many benefits of variable-rate precision ag are hard to measure in terms of a yield increase, but the improved profitability per acre by minimizing inefficiencies is the largest overall benefit of increased management.
When thinking about zone management, consider areas that grow specific crops better than others. Barley grows better in saline areas, peas or lentils like drier hilltops, canola benefits from extra moisture in depressions and everywhere else can grow wheat.
However, we can’t grow five different crop species on a single field in one year, unless it is for hay or pasture. Different grass species have preferential growing conditions. Utilizing zone management, a pasture or hayfield can have specific seed varieties or blends to optimize the growing potential in each area, leading to a measurable increase in productivity.
Utilizing zone management is a fit on every farm because things can always be improved. Understanding our management goals will help identify which components of zone management will optimize every acre on your farm.
Nathan Trowell is a manager of agronomic services for Nutrien Ag Solutions in eastern Saskatchewan.