How precision agriculture is transforming modern farming

Precision agriculture is the management and use of technology and data from one or more of the following sources: soils, crops, nutrients, pests, moisture, or yield, for optimum profitability, sustainability, and protection of the environment.

Many farmers believe that precision agriculture allows them to achieve uniform production over their farms. Still, in reality, precision agriculture aims to optimize inputs for agricultural production according to the land’s capability.

Precision agriculture has many other potential benefits, including cost reduction, improvement in the size and scope of farming without increasing labor, and control of production processes that help achieve higher value products and improved production tracking for food safety and environmental benefits.

When used precisely to control where equipment travels in a field, precision agriculture can also reduce soil compaction and erosion, besides offering soil and water quality through reduced or targeted inputs such as nutrients, pesticides, and irrigation water.

Precise nutrient applications

The goal of precise nutrient applications is to apply only the nutrients that the plants need and use to control applications in environmentally sensitive areas. This provides significant economic and environmental benefits. The application rates vary based on existing fertility levels, soil types, and ecological sensitivity.

The information necessary to determine the appropriate nutrient application includes the following:

  • Grid soil sampling — Over time, as more information is gained, grid sampling can evolve into a sampling of similar zones to reduce the number of samples.
  • Yield monitoring — Knowing how much different areas of a field actually yield provides the most critical clue about potential.
  • Soils information — Knowing the soils’ properties offers essential information about yield potential and environmental sensitivity.
  • Remote sensing — Using aerial photography can identify in-season nutrient deficiencies and other problems causing crop stress, reduced yield, and low growth patterns.
  • Environmentally sensitive areas — Georeferencing waterways, streams, ditches, wetlands, high leach potential soils, and tile inlets help improve the application of nutrients.

Precise pesticide applications

Precise pesticide applications can also provide both environmental and economic benefits. The quickest and least expensive environmental payoffs for pesticide applications is the use of lightbar guidance systems, which are relatively inexpensive, compared to other guidance systems. They provide an easy way to guide equipment across a field to prevent overlapping when spraying pesticides.

The information necessary for the variable rate application of pesticides includes the following.

  • Scouting — Georeferencing areas that show insect or weed problems.
  • Remote sensing — Identifying in-season insect damage from aerial photography.
  • Yield monitoring — Identifying the cause of low yields due to pests.
  • Environmentally sensitive areas — Georeferencing waterways, streams, ditches, wetlands, high leach potential soils, and tile inlets to protect the sites from over-applying pesticides.
  • Detailed soils information — Knowing the soils’ properties to provide important details on yield potential and environmental sensitivity.

Variable rate irrigation

Variable rate irrigation is an emerging technology used in conjunction with center pivot irrigation systems that typically apply a relatively uniform amount of water.

The variable nature of fields often results in different amounts of water needed in other areas. This variability occurs due to a combination of factors such as varying soil types, topography, or multiple crops.

In addition to variability, center pivot irrigation is often complicated by irregularly shaped fields, overlapping center pivot systems, and the presence of farm lanes and farm ditches. A possible solution lies in matching field variability with an equally variable irrigation application. The technology to do it is known as variable rate irrigation.

The system can improve water saving, but some farmers have questions about the long-term reliability of systems and the economic return on investment because variable rate irrigation systems require a custom design and specialized equipment and extensive planning of water application zones. Experts believe that as the technology continues to mature, the reliability will increase with ample economic return, determined by the expense and regulation of water and the value of crops grown.

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