Precision agriculture – using computers to manage farm inputs and yields down to the micro-level – certainly holds strong promise for farmers. The problem is that the experience of using it often turns out to be something less than idyllic.
Brian Watkins, who farms 7,000 acres of corn and soybeans near Kenton, Ohio, really likes that his precision ag system gives him yield information as he harvests. When he marries that data with soil conditions, the result shows him the big influence soil conditions have on production. He can adjust inputs accordingly.
"We’ll drive across the field and go from a yield of zero to getting more than 200 bushels an acre," the sixth-generation farmer told an audience at Farm Futures America in San Francisco last week. "Really, it’s a soil issue. Soil can vary within 100 feet."
The problem is system upgrades undermine Watkins’ historical data. Each time he buys a better system, he must install different base stations. The geographic co-ordinates shift slightly "and the data suffers. We thought we could create permanent boundaries," he said. "That has not worked out for us."
Watkins, who has five employees, was an early adopter of precision ag. He began yield monitoring and variable-rate fertilizer applications in the mid-90s. He added auto steering in 2004, with the hope of creating AB lines in his fields to reduce operator error. He hoped operators wouldn’t drive over or hit crops.
"That hasn’t been the case," said Watkins. The reason? Tractors with auto steering pull implements that don’t follow perfectly. Even today, operators must continually adjust for the piece of equipment behind them.
Though precision ag has drawbacks, it creates advantages that Watkins wouldn’t want to farm without. Auto steering, for instance, allows him to more effectively operate equipment at night. Watkins, like his father before him, has always planted at night to reduce his planting window. There is value to that, he said. "You can take planting down from 7.1 days to 5.6." (See analysis below)
Enhanced agronomy may be the various systems’ ace in the hole. Watkins, who recently completed an MBA at Ohio State University on how to create value with technology, relies heavily on soil maps that show him variable lime rates in his soil. He strives to keep the optimum pH between 6.4 and 6.8. Scouts also can mark problem areas in fields.
But the big payoff may be in tracking the influence of drainage, since the Watkins farm typically deals with too much water, not too little. Watkins said his father always knew that he should put in more drainage tile. Precision ag quantifies the benefits of tile; He sees the yield variations between tiled and untiled ground, which makes drainage investments a no-brainer.
Precision planting is another feature that Watkins wouldn’t part with. Soil conditions vary dramatically on his farm. "We want to use the minimum planter down pressure to put the seed in the ground…. It makes a huge difference," he said.
Fertility calculations are another paradigm shift. The most productive soil, Watkins said, often has the lowest fertility rate. "That’s because it produced a lot more; now all the nutrients are gone."
Like many in the industry, Watkins dreams of the day when farmers share their data to produce the ultimate precision farming data base. The problem, he said, is that a lot of farmers are afraid to part with their data, since it is the heart and soul of their operation. Plus, much of the data isn’t any good, if the equipment wasn’t calibrated correctly. Watikins said it is hard to make calibration a priority when other more important things go wrong -- like a planter or combine that doesn’t operate. Even so, he said, "the promise of great data is still there."
As an advanced user of precision ag, Watkins is sometimes stymied by operator controls designed to make the system easy to use. The technology is designed to be idiot-proof. "But it hamstrings what people are able to do. We’re always wishing that we had more control over what’s there. The interface hasn’t been the tool that we hoped it would be," he said.
Watkins is intrigued by the next generation of precision ag systems. They hold out the promise of machines operating on a single web-based network, communicating and sharing data. "We haven’t invested yet," he said. "We want to see that it’s going to work."
Getting prompt service on equipment can also be a problem. Watkins, like most farmers, relies on a network of dealers who need to have a strong service mindset. Manufacturers and dealers need to change from the mindset of selling products to "helping our customers win," as Jack Welch, the former chief executive officer of General Electric, used to say.
The bottom line on precision ag is that the real promise of the system isn’t saving money; it’s driving higher yields. "Yield increases trump cost savings," Watkins said.
Precision Ag Auto-Steer Analysis
|Capital outlay for AS
||$22,000.00 (depreciated over 5 years)
|Annual cost of AS
|Net overall yield improvement per day
|Annual net margin growth from AS
|Net return for night operation
|Net present value