Precision ag adoption grows as producers seek increased efficiency

By Vicky Boyd

Editor

Growers continue to adopt precision agriculture components, with guidance systems and yield monitors being the most popular.

Those are just a few of the results of a survey of 2,500 Ohio farmers conducted in February 2007 by Marvin Batte, Van Buren professor of farm management at Ohio State University in Columbus.

The survey, which had a 58-percent response rate, follows on the heels of similar ones conducted in 1999 and 2003.

Although Batte says he believes the results are representative of other Corn Belt states, the adoption rate may be greater in production areas with higher-valued crops.

“Precision agriculture is kind of a site-specific sort of concept, and it will vary with the product being produced and the degree of variability,” he says. “In California, for example, there are a lot of high-value crops being produced. I’d hazard to guess that their adoption rates are even higher.”

Nearly 55 percent of commercial farmers in Ohio have adopted at least one piece of precision farming equipment as of 2007, according to the survey.

Precision guidance systems and yield monitors were the most frequently adopted precision farming equipment, with about 32 percent of all commercial farmers using them to date.

Precision guidance systems have been adopted by farmers most readily during the past eight years. Since 2003, precision guidance adoption rates have jumped to 32 percent from 5 percent, a 27 percent increase.

Other precision agriculture components being rapidly adopted by Ohio farmers include georeferenced grid soil sampling; global positioning system receivers; boundary  mapping; variable-rate application of lime, phosphorus and potassium; and aerial or satellite field photography, also known as remote sensing.

“The rate of adoption and what precision agriculture component is adopted is dependent size, annual sales and what kind of crops are being grown, like high-value fruits, vegetables, corn and soybeans or low-value crops like hay or pasture,” Batte says. “We found that adoption of precision guidance is seven times larger for the largest farm class than for the smallest class of commercial farmers.”

According to the survey, the least adopted precision agriculture equipment is variable-rate application of pesticides and micronutrients.

Rising input costs spur precision ag investments

Rich Hilliker, western regional sales manager for Trimble Navigation Ltd., says he has seen similar interest in precision agriculture in the West, particularly as input costs continue to rise and growers seek improved efficiency.

Sales of RTK automated steering systems that use a radio tower and GPS to provide sub-inch accuracy remain strong.

“But I think the adoption rate has definitely slowed down to where we’re at the top of the curve,” says Hilliker, who’s based in Chehalis, Wash. “Ninety-five percent of the big to mid-sized farms have RTK. And even some of the guys that probably never thought they could pay it off, in a good year like this they can.”

Where Hilliker says he has seen the most growth recently is with the lower-accuracy guidance and assisted-steering systems, such as Trimble’s EZ-Steer. The hands-free systems, which use differentially corrected GPS signals, typically provide accuracy of 6 to 8 inches and are designed for cruder farm operations, such as plowing and tillage.

“You can have these huge operations that have used RTK for years and they take a look at a DGPS antenna and for $10,000, they can have all of this and their savings are incredible.”

Evolution of an early adopter

Even in a state known for high-value crops, Jesus Sanchez, farm manager for R.A. Sanos Farms of Firebaugh, Calif., may be an exception with his wholesale embrace of precision agriculture.

Sanchez, who oversees several thousand acres of processing tomatoes, almonds and pomegranates, plunged into the technology more than 10 years ago when he first used grid soil sampling and the accompanying variable-rate fertilizer application.

“Before we’d apply only one rate to all of the field,” he says of processing tomatoes. “But the soil analysis showed that we needed less of the material in some places and more in different areas. Since we started doing [variable rate], we got a lot better uniformity.”

He also used variable-rate application for soil amendments, such as gypsum, and saw irrigation uniformity improve.

Initially, he used a Beeline GPS system to guide the variable-rate fertilizer spreaders. Since then, he’s switched to Trimble and now runs five RTK AgGPS Autopilot systems on his tractors. The units have helped reduce fuel use and labor costs because tractor operators can improve accuracy, reduce overlap and increase speeds, Sanchez says.

In addition, he’s used the RTK systems to lay drip irrigation lines in blocks of processing tomatoes and permanent crops.

Recent software releases have allowed Sanchez to use those same GPS receivers on laser leveling equipment, eliminating the need for separate and expensive laser receivers and towers.

His latest trial involves working with a company that uses an experimental camera-equipped unmanned aircraft to take remote sensing images of crops. The images provide resolution down to the centimeter, “so you can see a lot more things.”

Sanchez says he hopes the aerial views of his orchards will alert him to early stages of stress caused by pests, water or diseases before they’re visible to scouts walking through the orchards.

“If this works, we might be able to do variable-rate pesticide applications,” he says. “Why spray the whole field if you have only 2 or 3 acres infected.”

To view the complete results of the 2007 Ohio State University precision ag survey, click here.

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