AgTech, Sustainability

Precision Farming: A Model of Efficiency

Carolyn Beatty

People are always looking for ways to improve their efficiency. Achieving higher productivity lends itself to greater production output and the elimination of unnecessary time-consuming tasks.  Precision farming is the path forward as we embrace new technologies to increase efficiency and output through more sustainable models of production.

Less input with more output seems like a pretty universal goal. It’s essential for ag businesses to have this mindset. Growers have created more efficient business models thanks to the advancement of marketing services, sales acceleration, and Ag Tech innovations.  

To garner even greater profits, the key is for farmers to understand the necessary steps to achieve high crop yields. First and foremost is tackling all in-field variables.  

Parts of any farm will contain varying soil conditions and receive different sunlight and water levels. These variables are known to exist. However, there have been few tools available to manage them. As a result, treating each field as a single unit has become general practice.  

Producers have had to base management decisions on average overall conditions and hope their inputs will suit most of the field. Unfortunately, this has led to the under- or over-application of treatments like pesticides. These chemical excesses are often left to infiltrate soil and water.  

This one-size-fits-all farm management style is inefficient, costly, and harmful to crop yield and soil health. A far more effective approach would be implementing a customized, data-driven plan. But how? Is that even possible?  

Enter precision farming.  

What is Precision Farming?  

Also known as precision agriculture or site-specific crop management (SSM), precision farming is an information-based comprehensive farm management system. It seeks maximum profitability, sustainability, and resource protection by identifying, analyzing, and managing field variability. Such in-field variables may result from management practices, soil qualities, and/or environmental characteristics.  

Precision farming is all about accuracy and efficiency. By gathering and analyzing data from sensors, tractors, drones, and satellites, farmers can make more informed management decisions. Stronger information and better management then lead to improved efficiency at rapid rates.  

Under this data-driven method, ag technologies segment the field into smaller units. Then, the characteristics of each unit are determined and, thus, treated separately and accordingly. Inputs like seed, fertilizer, or chemicals are only applied where and as needed.  

This allows producers to optimize their returns while preserving their resources. In addition, they can automate and simplify data collection and analysis, leading to faster management decisions and implementations. It also makes for safer working conditions for employees.  

In other words, precision ag enables field operators to work smarter, not harder.  

While precision farming focuses on observing, measuring, and responding accordingly to variables, the key to success lies within the tools themselves. Advances in Ag Tech now allow farmers to track every square foot of their farm with unprecedented accuracy. This can alleviate the pressure producers face to make operations more sustainable.  

The USDA identifies 3 key pillars of precision ag.  

  1. Reduced environmental impact
  2. Increased productivity and yield
  3. Better overall economic result

All three areas must be achieved for this method to become genuinely more sustainable than other farming practices. In other words, for one pillar to be fully realized, all three must be met.  

The good news is that the available precision Ag Tech is helping crop farmers make significant advancements with all three pillars. But first, farmers must understand which precision agriculture technologies will work best for them.  

Precision Farming Ag Tech  

Across all industries, technology enables us to work more efficiently. Agriculture is no different, and Ag Tech is steadily gaining its own momentum.  

As farmers know, several different technologies are critical in optimizing farming management. However, when it comes to precision farming Ag Tech, these fall within one of five prominent areas.  

  1. Machine Section Control detects which rows have already been seeded or sprayed and can adjust planter, fertilizer, or sprayer sections accordingly. It also adjusts treatments automatically for shorter rows and turn rows, based on field data gathered via a global positioning system (GPS). GPS is a satellite-based navigation system that determines an object’s current position. Farmers use a GPS to collect site-specific data, monitor crop conditions, and track infestations.
  2. Auto Steer automatically controls tractors during seeding, spraying, and harvesting to avoid overlapping or missed field spots. This reduces soil compaction and increases efficiency under the utilization of a GPS and a geographic information system (GIS). GIS is digital mapping software that stores, displays, and processes big data. This data includes yields, soil survey maps, remotely sensed data, crop scouting reports, and soil nutrient levels. GIS data can be used to create maps that determine management scenario analyses and recommended application rates of nutrients or pesticides.
  3. Variable Rate Technologies (VRT) determine and adjust the variable rate application based on soil sampling data. Using this data, an application map is created and loaded into the VRT spreader. Fertilizer, seed, and crop protection products are then automatically applied at different rates without making multiple passes. VRT often uses supporting Ag Tech such as crop and soil sensors, yield monitors, and preprogrammed maps.
  4. Fleet Analytics and Telematics enable farmers to monitor equipment in real-time from a distance using remote sensing (RS). RS satellite imagery can be used to create and implement an optimized farming management plan. This can include route suggestions, equipment idling, and GPS location tracking.
  5. Precision Irrigation Technologies apply different amounts of water to individual field sections. This reduces water consumption without jeopardizing crop performance. Sensor-driven center pivots and drip irrigation are two types of precision irrigation technologies.

Environmental Benefits of Precision Farming  

The technology that enables precision agriculture to increase producers’ efficiency also bolsters sustainability efforts. Enhanced sustainability means farmers use less to grow more, saving money on their operations while maximizing returns. It’s also a massive win for the environment. With the goal of doubling food production globally by the year 2050 looming on the horizon, these efficiencies become even more critical in the grand scheme of the Ag value chain.  

A recent study from the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) identified five key environmental benefits to adopting precision farming:  

  1. Yield benefit through increased efficiency
  2. Fertilizer reduction by more precise placement
  3. Pesticide reduction by more accurate application
  4. Fuel savings due to less overlap and better monitoring
  5. Water savings through more accurate sensing of needs

This study also found that precision farming quantifiably enhances sustainability at its current adoption level through more efficient use of land, water, fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides.  

Specifically, productivity has been linked to 4% more yield, 6% higher crop production, and a 7% increase in fertilizer efficiency.  

Meanwhile, there’s been a 9% reduction in herbicide use, 6% reduction in fossil fuels, and 4% reduction in water use. These cutbacks in fertilizer, fossil fuel, water, herbicides, and greenhouse gases make precision ag part of the solution to today’s climate crisis.  

Precision farming data can help bridge the gap between protecting our earth and providing healthy food to the public. Today’s farmers face the need to expand food production as the pressure increases to feed a growing global population. Precision ag reduces food waste and can help address the global hunger crisis. Yielding more crops faster will ensure more food gets into mouths.  

Adoption of precision ag is not just about the immediate benefits of reduced fuel, fertilizer, herbicide, or water use. It is also about the agriculture industry advancing to be more productive, competitive, and sustainable.  

The possibility of delivering on this depends on maximum efficiency.  

Running a high output operation while improving both profits and sustainability is possible through precision ag. With increased adoption, technologies become more widely available, making it viable to grow farm operations more quickly. Precision farming methodology puts growth and increased efficiency within arm’s reach.  

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