Precision farming tools, from automation to variable-rate technology (VRT) and others, are giving farmers new ways to make and save money. Before you dive into precision farming with both feet, it’s valuable to identify which technology is likely to give you a return on investment now and which ones might take more time before you can pocket any profits.
“The technologies that have been the most rapidly adopted are those that are automated,” says Bruce Erickson, Purdue University agronomy education distance and outreach director. “Things like sprayer controllers, planter row shutoffs and tools that guide implements through the field are helping reduce costs.”
Sprayer nozzle and section controls, for example, can save on fertilizer and pesticide costs by cutting down inevitable overlap. Tools such as turn compensation help ensure every part of a field gets the right rate so the outside edge of the sprayer boom doesn’t miss out and the inside doesn’t get too much. Planter shutoffs help save seed costs with the same principle.
“Farmers starting in precision can look to automated guidance and controllers as an easy way in with clear ROI,” Erickson says. Sprayer controllers, for example, can pay for themselves in the first year.
“The other side of precision agriculture, based on field characteristics, has huge potential but is more dependent on agronomy and knowledge of the field,” he adds.
Targeting inputs where and when the crop needs them minimizes overlap and decreases costs.
“Why put more seed out than what the ground is capable of handling? The same goes for fertilizer,” says Matt Boucher, who farms in northern Illinois and uses VRT.
The Farm Journal Test Plots program conducted a multiyear study weighing the investment of VRT against per-acre yield increases and cost savings.
One farmer, for example, averaged 3,550 fewer seeds per acre compared with his former flat rate of 36,000. Over his 1,366 acres of corn, he saved 60.6 bags of seed in addition to 11.2 bags by using swath control. By eliminating overlap, he also increased yield and initially saved some on nitrogen for a total return of $81,484. After factoring in the additional nitrogen required by VRT, his net benefit was $69,460, or $50.85 per acre.
“Information technology has dramatically advanced, allowing us to take the data we’re pulling out of fields and make it more usable,” Erickson says. That information is used to create the variable-rate nutrient maps, soil amendment maps and seeding rate details farmers need to enter into the next era of ag—and to do so profitably.
Cory Gilbert, with On Target Ag Solutions, says some aspects of precision farming take time to implement and benefit from. “Make sure you go full circle with this,” Gilbert says. “Start by setting a goal or figuring out what you want to achieve.”