Variable rate technology is about to take off

While many farmers are talking about variable rate technology, there are still lots of farmers who aren’t using it in the field yet

It seems that Variable Rate Technology (VRT) has found itself in a middle ground of use at the current time. The technology is there to use, but VRT has yet to have truly caught on as the next big thing in precision farming practices.

From my discussions with farmer and agriculture professionals, it seems that the percentage of farmers actually using VRT ranges from five to 20 per cent.

VRT can be applied to different operations from fertilizing, to seeding or even applying fungicides. It seems to me that, given the length of time it’s been around, there should soon be a breakthrough increase in the number of farmers taking advantage of what VRT can do.

What is VRT?

Many farmers are still fairly uninformed about what VRT really is. They may understand the final product, but aren’t really sure how to get there.

Basically, using variable rate can be accomplished in three steps once you have and understand the technology.

First, you need detailed maps of the acres you farm. You can do this over a couple years if you want, gathering information from the acres you seed each year. Some people may prefer to do it all at the same time. At present, it’s best to get a professional company in to do this. They will gather all the information and give it to you in a form that will allow you to look at the data and identify the zones you want to use with different variable rates. The most common maps are created with GIS mapping software of some sort — it seems to be the most user friendly technology for this application.

After this, you need prescriptions for each of your variable zones. This ensures that when you’re in an area of low nutrient level, more fertilizer is added, and in areas of higher nutrient level, less fertilizer is added, giving your field a custom job. Once a farmer better understands his maps, he’ll be able to create his own prescriptions. But I think for the first time or two, it will be good to develop prescriptions with someone who really understands the process and agronomy.

The last part of the process is to apply the prescriptions, using VRT technology. Of course, the more you do this, the more smoothly the process will go. Like any technology, at first there will be a learning curve. Getting started will take longer than you’re used to — several little things can cause problems or mistakes and keep the system from running properly.

Why VRT hasn’t exploded

I’m sure many of you are asking yourself why such a valuable tool has not yet exploded into the agricultural mainstream. There are a few reasons for this, and they are quite similar to why GPS took a few years to become a common practice.

First, it is not yet a highly promoted technology. There are plenty of companies involved with the mapping and prescription end of the VRT process such as Viterra, Dynagra, GeoTrends and Decisive Farming. Yet I only remember seeing one of these promoted at the Crop Production show in Saskatoon. Also, it doesn’t seem that equipment manufacturers are pushing this as a selling feature yet either.

VRT seems complicated. First you have to deal with a company to get maps and prescriptions. Then, you have to process the information and program your equipment. Then, you have to run and execute the VRT in-cab and get it working properly. This seems like a lot for an industry with an aging demographic that has been known to be set in its ways.

VRT still seems expensive and time-consuming for the service it provides. Farmers are not yet seeing the correlation between the cost and effort involved and the savings and yield improvements that VRT can provide. Farmers always like to see hard evidence. VRT is somewhat a more abstract concept until it is used for a couple years and the results can be seen.

This situation reminds me of when auto-steer first came out. Some farmers hesitated because they felt it took too much cost and effort. Then, after five or six days in the field, they couldn’t necessarily see the effects the auto-steer, but they could feel it. They were experiencing less fatigue and getting more acres in.

When farmers use VRT more and see more consistent soil nutrition across their fields, creating a situation for consistently maximum yield, more farmers will jump on the band wagon.

Though VRT has not had its break-out year yet it might not be too much longer. We are just now seeing now the beginning of the information age in our industry. VRT is already on the doorstep and will be one of the first to catch on, just the way GPS was poised for its big break in 2001 and now is standard on most new farm equipment. My advice is to stay open to these things and never stop learning about technology. You never know how much better it can make you. †

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Jay Peterson farms near Frontier, Sask.

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