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High input costs, cheap equipment: Finding the value in precision ag technology

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Written Thursday, April 10, 2008  

If farmers are considering incorporating precision agriculture equipment into their farm operations, now might be an ideal time to adopt the technology.

With the costs of crop production inputs rising and precision agriculture systems getting cheaper, equipment such as RTK (real-time kinetic) auto-steering, yield monitors and variable rate applicators may add economical value to the farm in the form of higher input savings and a greater net return.

“The primary purpose of precision agriculture technology is to improve production efficiency, boost savings with seed and fertilizer applications, and cut costs associated with labor, fuel and equipment wear and tear,” said Randall Reeder, an Ohio State University Extension agricultural engineer. “In the past, it may not have always been economically feasible for farmers with medium-size operations to adopt precision agriculture, but with today’s rising costs, there may now be a place on the farm for the technology.”

Reeder said that the various components of a precision agriculture system each contribute to a savings for the farmer.

“Even farmers with small farms can benefit from technology provided by ag suppliers, such as variable rate fertilizer application,” Reeder said.

With an RTK auto steer system, for example, part of the savings comes from the elimination of overlaps and skips, due to the 1-inch driving accuracy.

“Really how much you save depends on how sloppy you were before switching to an RTK auto-steer system,” Reeder explained. “With a row marker system, conservatively speaking, growers might be farming 102 acres in a 100-acre field because of the overlaps. This translates into spending two percent more in all materials, from seed to fertilizer to herbicides to labor. But with an RTK system, you eliminate guess row errors and overlaps.”

Reeder refers to an RTK auto steer as the “Cadillac” of precision agriculture equipment because of its higher cost relative to light bars and other less precise guidance systems. However, growers find additional uses for the technology that help justify the costs.

“I’ve never heard anyone who owned RTK auto-steering say he or she would want to give it up,” Reeder said. “It’s like having power steering on a pick-up truck. Once you get used to it, you can’t imagine not having it. Farmers are always finding ways they can benefit from the technology.”

For example, an RTK auto-steer system gives farmers the ability to add automatic on and off switches to planter units, drill sections or spray boom sections.

“That results in a direct savings,” Reeder said. “An area already planted won’t be replanted, an area already sprayed won’t be sprayed again.”

Yield monitors are beneficial because they can give a value to yield variations in a field that farmers otherwise could only estimate visually.

“Without yield monitors, farmers may not realize just how low their yield is in certain areas of a field, and that’s costing them profits,” he said. “Variations in a field, from slope to soil type to drainage, can have an impact on crop production.

“Farmers are even discovering that their input costs on crops planted along wooded areas or tree lines are higher than the yields they are getting because of competition for nutrients and water. Precision agriculture is providing farmers with a better understanding of the dynamics between the environment and the crops.”

Even before guidance systems were developed, farmers were discovering the benefits of precision agriculture technology through variable rate application of fertilizer nutrients. A recent OSU Extension study found a savings in fertilizer costs when using the technology compared to going without it.

John Barker, OSU Extension educator in Knox County, conducted the study on a 45-acre central Ohio farm using variable rate technology to manage fertilizer applications of potassium and phosphorus on three field scenarios: application based on soil test data with the field divided into 2.5 acre grids, application based on soil type and application based on historical crop removal data using GIS software. The results were compared to the farmer’s normal production practices of fertilizer application without precision agriculture technology.

“Theoretically, combining field-based data with the ability to vary input usage at specific points within a field using precision agriculture should increase input efficiency,” Barker said. “Increased efficiency should improve profit margins and result in the adoption of more environmentally sound practices.”

Based on the results of the study, Barker found that in each scenario involving variable rate fertilizer applications, fertilizer savings ranged from $36 to more than $88 per acre when compared to normal production practices and no precision agriculture use.

“Overall fertilizer use (17,325 pounds for the 45-acre field) was the highest using the farmer’s normal production practice of uniform application,” he said.

Using grid soil sampling and variable rate applications, fertilizer use was reduced by 3,420 pounds. Using variable rate fertilization applications based on soil type and on historical crop removal data each reduced overall fertilizer use by more than 7,200 pounds.

"With today’s soaring fertilizer prices, those savings can have a significant impact,” Barker said. “In most precision agriculture circles, the most often asked question is ‘Does precision agriculture pay?’ In this study the answer is yes.”

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