Precision farming critical to success

The future of agriculture in the United States depends on our ability to produce quality food and fiber in an increasingly competitive world marketplace.

For nearly a century we have led the world in efficient food and fiber production. The strength of our nation depends on our diligent efforts to utilize agricultural technologies to compete in the marketplace while enhancing on-farm productivity and profitability while protecting the environment.

Agricultural productivity and environmental quality are entirely compatible provided our society makes wise land use decisions and our agricultural enterprise continues to develop the technologies to optimize on-farm productivity and to preserve the quality of our environment.

Our technological advances have been the envy of the both developed and under-developed nations. For the first time in history, technological advances in other areas of science are being applied to agriculture to improve productivity, crop diversity, food quality, and alternative uses for agricultural crops.

Advances in genetics and biotechnology will have profound effects on production agriculture from this day forward. Similarly, advances in computer and related technologies of the last decade will have equally profound effects on the future of production agriculture.

Precision agriculture involves assessment of the spatial variability in soil and crop parameters, and subsequent management of this variability to enhance agricultural productivity, input efficiency, and environmental quality. Precision farming technology relies on a geographic information system (GIS) which is a mapping software program designed to input, display and analyze spatial data and to interpret relationships between the spatial data "layers." The data layers used in a GIS include: 1) remotely sensed data (aerial or satellite photographs), 2) crop yield data obtained from a yield monitoring combine, 3) spatial soil test and soil property data, 4) spatial arrangement and composition of pest pressures including diseases, insects, and weeds, and 5) land surface data such as rivers, streams, highways, railroads, and numerous other topographical features. Collection of spatial data involves use of a global positioning system (GPS).

Because technological advancements over the last decade have made precision farming practical, it is projected that United States' agriculture will be based predominately on site-specific management of inputs including seed, nutrients, and pesticides. The ultimate benefits of precision farming are primarily enhanced input efficiency and environmental quality. Recent surveys suggest that producer adoption of precision agriculture technologies has been more rapid than many other technological advances of the past.

Farmers are becoming much more computer-literate and recognize that, where appropriate, variable input management will be an important component of their farm management. Producers have demonstrated that variable application of lime, pesticide, phosphorus, and other inputs can enhance profitability and efficiency. Agricultural input suppliers have been leaders in providing products, services, and information to producers. It is an exciting time in agriculture.

We still have substantial work to do in demonstrating that these technologies enhance environmental quality. Intuitively, it is easy to suggest that applying inputs only where needed will increase efficiency, which should translate into improved environmental quality. Many have suggested that variable application of nutrients will reduce the total amount of nutrients applied to a given field. While total input application may be reduced in some cases, the more likely scenario is that the total nutrient applied remains the same but substantially higher rates are applied in some areas while substantially lower rates are applied in other areas.

In this case, nutrient recovery or efficiency is greatly enhanced even though total nutrient use remains the same as with uniform application methods. More importantly, the combined benefits of variable application of multiple input outweigh the benefits of variable application of a single input. Therefore, taken together, precision technologies applied to the entire operation will likely prove more profitable compared to any comparison between uniform and variable application of a single input.

One significant component of precision agriculture that has not been well developed is the use of remote sensing technologies in soil and crop management. While extensive research and demonstration programs are under way, use of satellite imagery and other remote sensing information in production agriculture is still under development.

The future of remote sensing technologies is substantial. Within five years, variable irrigation management based on remotely sensed soil moisture and crop drought stress will be fully developed. In-season nutrient and pesticide applications based on remotely sensed data will be common place.

Variable seeding rate, variety, and other identity-preserved characteristics will be variably distributed in a field based on remotely sensed information that characterizes within-field soil variability. The use of combine yield monitors will become obsolete due to advances in remote sensing technologies.

Agricultural production in the United States will increasingly incorporate precision agriculture technologies.

It is imperative that producers and other agricultural professionals acquire the pertinent technical skills necessary to remain competitive. United States producers have always been ingenious in adopting technological solutions to production problems. It is not surprising to see the rapid adoption of precision agriculture technologies, as many producers recognize the potential benefits to profitability and productivity.

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