Precision agriculture is a method of farming that uses technological innovations – including GPS guidance, drones, sensors, soil sampling and precision machinery – in order to grow crops more efficiently. Ultimately, precision agriculture techniques help farmers make more informed decisions about their crops based on the unique nature of their fields so that they can do the right thing, in the right place, at the right time.
Agricultural sustainability is meeting the needs of people, protecting the environment and building prosperity for today and in the future. Precision agriculture contributes to sustainable agriculture as a whole.
In crops, precision agriculture is about leveraging data gathered through various methods, including through drones, satellite mapping and sensors, to make decisions about how to manage each individual piece of land. While a farmer may plant the same crop across one field, that crop may need different care in different parts of that same field based on things like soil type and pest pressures. Leveraging the power of the data they can now acquire about their fields gives farmers the ability to determine the exact placement and amount of inputs, such as pesticides, required to successfully grow their crops, which helps improve the productivity of their operations, reduces waste and improves their environmental sustainability.
Plant science technologies like pesticides and plant breeding innovations like genetically modified crops are tools that fit into the precision agriculture toolbox. They help farmers be more productive and they help drive agricultural sustainability. Without these tools, future farmers would need 50 per cent more land to grow the same amount of food we do now.
Why does precision agriculture matter to you?
At its core, precision agriculture is designed to improve the efficiency of production on farms. For farmers, this has obvious benefits: they can grow more, and healthier crops on the same amount of land and increase the economic viability of their farms in a way that’s better for the environment. For Canadians today, this all contributes to greater food availability and keeps food costs affordable. In the long term, precision agriculture is helping to nurture and protect farm land so that it remains productive in 20, 50 and 100 years’ time
The first wave of precision agriculture
Precision agriculture was born with the introduction of GPS guidance for tractors in the early 1990s, and the adoption of this technology is now so widespread globally that it’s probably the most commonly-used example of precision ag today. John Deere was the first to introduce this technology using GPS location data from satellites. A GPS-connected controller in a farmer’s tractor automatically steers the equipment based on the coordinates of a field. This reduces steering errors by drivers and therefore any overlap passes on the field. In turn, this results in less wasted seed, fertilizer, fuel, and time.
Precision agronomics is another important term related to the combining of methodology with technology. At its core, it’s about providing more accurate farming techniques for planting and growing crops. Precision agronomics can involve any of the following elements:
Variable rate technology (VRT) – VRT refers to any technology that enables the variable application of inputs and allows farmers to control the amount of inputs they apply in a specific location. The basic components of this technology include a computer, software, a controller and a differential global positioning system (DGPS). There are three basic approaches to using VRT – map-based, sensor-based and manual. The adoption of variable rate technology is currently estimated at 15% in North America and is expected to continue to grow rapidly over the next five years.
GPS soil sampling – Testing a field’s soil reveals available nutrients, pH level, and a range of other data that is important for making informed and profitable decisions. In essence, soil sampling allows growers to consider productivity differences within a field and formulate a plan that takes these differences into account. Collection and sampling services that are worth the effort will allow the data to be used for input for variable rate applications for optimizing seeding and fertilizer.
Computer-based applications – Computer applications can be used to create precise farm plans, field maps, crop scouting and yield maps. This, in turn, allows for the more precise application of inputs such as pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, thus helping to reduce expenses, produce higher yields and create a more environmentally-friendly operation. The challenge with these software systems is they sometimes deliver a narrow value that doesn’t allow data to be used for making bigger farm decisions, especially with the support of an expert. Another concern with many software applications is poor user interfaces, and the inability to integrate the information they provide with other data sources to enrich and show significant value to farmers.
Remote sensing technology – Remote sensing technology has been in use in agriculture since the late 1960s. It can be an invaluable tool when it comes to monitoring and managing land, water, and other resources. It can help determine everything from what factors may be stressing a crop at a specific point in time to estimating the amount of moisture in the soil. This data enriches decision-making on the farm and can come from several sources including drones and satellites.
At its most basic level, precision agronomics takes the role of an agronomist and helps make the methods they use more accurate and scalable.
The primary aim of precision agriculture and precision agronomics is to ensure profitability, efficiency, and sustainability while protecting the environment. This is achieved by using the big data gathered by this technology to guide both immediate and future decisions on everything from where in the field to apply a particular rate, to when it’s best to apply chemical, fertilizer or seed.
While precision agriculture principles have been around for more than 25 years, it’s only been over the past decade that they have become mainstream due to technological advancements and the adoption of other, broader technologies. The adoption of mobile devices, access to high-speed internet, low cost and reliable satellites – for positioning and imagery — and farm equipment that’s optimized for precision agriculture by the manufacturer, are some of the key technologies characterizing the trend for precision agriculture. Some experts have suggested that more than 50% of today’s farmers use at least one precision farming practice.
Advocating for excellence
Precision agriculture innovation continues, and more and more farms are adopting available technology and practices. Like any other industry, we need more advocates to drive greater adoption and hence greater efficiency. Growers need support to successfully implement new technologies to ensure success. At Decisive Farming, we support our growers with training and expertise.