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Measure Precision Farming Gains

Manufacturers of precision farming equipment often point to specific cost-savings farmers can achieve by using their systems. There are any number of different soil conditions and management practices that, when viewed in combination, can make for some pretty unique circumstances. So is it realistic to think adopting any new technology will automatically provide the kind of benefits marketers claim?

In most cases, a producer can make some pretty accurate estimates ahead of time. But according to Ken Coles, general manager of the Southern Applied Research Association at Lethbridge, Alta., the only way to accurately verify the benefits of adopting precision farming technologies — and find ways to make further gains — is for a producer to start doing his own research. That means devoting a little farm real estate to setting up test strips.

The first job is to establish a baseline for yields. “Get some sample information,” says Coles. “Just start doing strip trials right off the bat. Play around with fertilizer and seeding rates.” Knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does. Setting aside small research plots in a few fields will help producers really understand the benefits of different application rates or agronomic practices, and it won’t cut that deeply into overall production.

Ty Faechner, executive director of the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta agrees. “People need to see on their own farms how well things are working out.” Doing individual on-farm trials provides a lot of first-hand knowledge that can really empower producers. “It confirms the dollars (a technology) will make for you on your own operation.”

SET YOUR OWN BENCHMARK

As producers adopt any new precision farming practice, Faechner says they should structure onfarm research to measure their success in a way that provides a realistic yardstick. “That way you know you’re headed down the right approach,” he says.

Without baseline information, it may be hard to make the best use of new precision tools, like variable rate technology (VRT). “I get worried that too many people focus on VRT,” says Coles. “There’s a lot of pre-work that needs to be done.” He believes VRT is most effective when it is based on detailed yield history. But building a good database takes time. “It’s going to take a couple of years of data,” adds Coles.

Without a few years of onfarm yield history to draw from, the only thing to base production information on may be aerial maps, which have to be purchased. To help interpret them, Faechner suggests paying for a professional’s services may be money well spent. “To tie all that together, (producers) may need to be working with an agronomist,” he says.

DEVELOP FIELD-SPECIFIC MAPS

For farmers looking to start building accurate field maps, equipping a combine with a yield monitor tied to a GPS system should be an important element in their strategy. Coles believes it’s possible to justify a combine yield monitor on almost any size of farm.

And there are other ways to compliment that information. “I think there’s a potential for optical imagery,” adds Coles. Systems like Trimble’s GreenSeeker allow producers to map crop biomass when making an application with a sprayer. It can even use real-time measurements to apply additional liquid nitrogen during the growing season, which gives producers another option for fine tuning inputs to exactly match growing conditions.

For anyone who wants to move up to a higher level of GPS accuracy, such as an RTK system, Sid Siefken of Trimble Navigation’s agriculture division, a GPS systems manufacturer, says farmers should plan to start off a new season with the accuracy they intend to use, rather than switch part way through the year.

“If you’re thinking about inter-row seeding, you probably want to think about it now for the spring season to ensure we get this crop planted correctly. Next spring you’ve got an excellent starting point and you can use that next level of accuracy.” he says.

Siefken adds that even if producers aren’t moving to a higher accuracy level, they should check with their dealer to see if there is any new firmware (proprietary software) available for the model of GPS unit they use. Something as simple as a software upgrade can open up new uses for existing systems, allowing for more accurate data collection and mapping capabilities.

New features and capabilities for GPS systems come online so often it can take a while for everyone in the industry — including farmers — to fully understand their potential advantages. “We’re learning as we go,” Faechner says.

Scott Garvey is machinery editor for Grainews. Contact him at [email protected]

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Scott Garvey

Scott Garvey is a freelance writer and video producer. He is also the former machinery editor at Grainews.

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