Become a Farm CSI

March 12, 2013 07:19 AM
Become a Farm CSI

Precision ag technology can help you solve mysteries in your fields

When crime scene investigators (CSIs) arrive on the scene, they look for clues that will help them solve the mystery and catch the culprit. In the same way, farmers can play detective and become crop scene investigators by using precision ag technology to analyze data and identify in-field problems and solutions.

But before you can analyze useful data, you must collect it, says Ken Ferrie, Farm Journal field agronomist, speaking to a group of about 100 farmers attending the 2013 Farm Journal Profit College this week in Fishers, Ind.

"We can micromanage fields today like never before," he says. "If you do a good enough job, the field will tell you what it needs. You just have to listen to it."

Ferrie says there is a variety of valuable information that farmers should collect, including:

• Accurate soil testing
• Soil types and topography
• Yield maps
• Ground-based sensors
• Aerial photos and remote sensing
• Your own knowledge

After data are collected, farmers can use their sleuthing and ground-truthing skills to the test. For example, using thermal imaging from aerial photography can unveil hot spots in the field.

Precision ag provides the "what" — the farmer/detective then must diagnose the "why." Is a field anomaly caused by applying too much or too little irrigation water? Is it due to soil type? Is it a drainage issue? Does the field have a unique history that is causing a change?

Ferrie recalls an instance where thermal imagery unveiled a mysterious significant yield increase in a small corner of that field. What was causing the bump? Field history, he says — that part of the field sat on an old livestock area that had been returned to cropland, and the residual manure had supercharged the soil with extra nitrogen.

Farmers must use some CSI analysis of three critical factors — yield, cost and price — to determine what precision ag tools will work best on their operation in the first place, says Chris Barron, AgWeb margins expert.

"Those three things are moving all of the time," he says. "Better analysis of those factors will help you hone in on a profitable margin."

For example, a farmer might be less inclined to invest in new precision ag equipment when corn is $4 than when it is $7.

"You need to look at your baseline," he says. "Then you have to look at where the value is in adding precision ag. Adding costs moves the target for your margins, and depending on commodity price, you have to be more frugal with your investments. At the same time, micromanagement can pay off big time."

Ferrie notes that 95% of precision ag problems can be chalked up to operator error. To that point, Barron says if you don’t understand a particular piece of technology on your farm, make sure someone on your team does.

"You can have the best information in the world but still not make the best decisions," he says. "Your team can add real value to your operation."

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Head to the field with Farm Journal Agronomists Ken Ferrie and Missy Bauer this summer at Corn College and Soybean College. Register now!

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