Before you buy that drone

Even in precision ag, it’s unwise to lose sight of the ‘fundamentals-first’ approach to good agronomy

It can be hard for those of us in the farm sector to contain our excitement when discussing the enormous potential of precision agriculture. Variable rate applications, variable rate planting, automatic down-pressure sensing, data management, digital imaging and soil sensing… these are just a few of the possibilities in a movement still clearly in its infancy.

Yet there can also be confusion. With each passing month, there’s another new system or another new component on the market, and each one requires a good deal of learning, as well as a good deal of clear thinking in order to figure out how best to integrate it into your overall management system.

It’s a far cry from when yield monitors were first introduced in the mid-1990s. Today, that technology seems primitive, but at the time it was a real struggle to know how to make it actually work for the benefit of the overall farm.

In the intervening years, the industry has turned out more VRT and GPS technology, yet farmers, retailers, agronomists and service providers are still learning the fundamentals.

Despite the parade of newer systems, are we actually making the kind of progress that we could be, and perhaps should be too?

General assumption

One shocking estimate comes from a service provider who says that fewer than 50 per cent of growers who have a GPS yield monitor in their combines use that data to manage their fields at the most basic level.

Such farmers might see that in one spot of their field, the crop yielded 225 bu./ac., while in another they only pulled off 175. But they’re not necessarily using that data to manage those zones differently — to plant high-performing hybrids at higher populations in that 225-bushel zone or to cut back on fertilizers and inputs on the 175-bushel area. Granted, variable rate planting with multiple hybrids is still just on the cutting edge, and it takes more time. But it is possible.

“The expectation the farmer has is higher than what the tool can actually deliver.” – Felix Weber, Ag Business & Crop.

“The expectation the farmer has is higher than what the tool can actually deliver.” – Felix Weber, Ag Business & Crop.
photo: File

That revelation sparks similar questions about other variable-rate technologies. Are we actually getting the most benefit from soil sensing devices, and are we using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to their fullest extent? Is there another way we should manage soil data? Are we measuring things properly, or to the best of the technology’s capabilities?

Most providers within the precision ag sector are engaged in a game of catch-up with the technology, and to be honest, it’s something of a merry-go-round. It isn’t enough to be proficient with one or two systems, the challenge is that there are new systems being introduced all the time. The other factor to remember is that there is no one single precision ag tool that can “do it all.” Each is simply a tool.

“Each tells you something different or gives you a little bit more information about an issue or a field,” says Felix Weber, of Ag Business and Crop, based in Palmers–ton, Ont. For the past six years, he has been an exclusive dealer for senseFly UAVs, and has overseen several upgrades of remote sensing technology. He believes there are several important steps growers must consider as they incorporate the tools, including what the tools are telling them, and how best to use that information.

There’s another danger, says Weber. “Sometimes that tool is oversold… the farmer’s expectation is higher than what the tool can actually deliver.”

Soil testing undersold

Regardless of the system being used — whether it’s a UAV, GreenSeeker, SoilOptix or some other sensing technology — creating that solid foundation is vital to continue building efficiencies. Anecdotally, the fall of 2015 saw more growers calling dealers and labs looking for soil tests on their fields. For many providers, that’s great news, until it’s learned that some growers will take that information but continue with the same fertility program regardless of the results.

That’s something Paul Raymer of Practical Precision in Tavistock, Ont., has seen in his work with growers. But he also acknowledges that in his discussions with retailers and advisers, as many as 80 per cent of the soil tests conducted were either grid or zone sampled. The desire for gleaning more information is there, and that leads to another question.

“What are farmers looking for? Are they looking at going to variable rate?” asks Raymer. “Some are saying yes, and some are just saying that they’re realizing they have to do a better job of soil sampling. But that’s the next step before they start looking for better maps. If they’re just taking one composite sample of a 25- or 50-acre field, that is not sampling.”

Raymer believes the majority of his customers are saying they don’t think they’re getting enough information out of traditional sampling and that they’re looking for something more. The trick is to get people grid sampling before they start looking for that “something more.”

“I think there’s more of that reluctance to change to the technology and actually start doing something, and working with a consultant who’s going to be encouraging them to do that,” says Raymer, noting that farmers can be reluctant to change. “I’m not sure if the technology was introduced too early. Most planters come out now with the capability of doing variable rate: the technology is there but is there willingness to make the change to use it?”

Willing to learn, but…

Yet it’s not to say that farmers are failing in adopting the technology, which is something that Brian Hall, who works with Weber at Ag Business and Crop, wants to make perfectly clear. The technology was brought to the market with great promise and potential, and many farmers took hold of the technology and tried to incorporate it. Some didn’t understand the value, others became frustrated with the attempt and returned to their old ways. Hall speaks of some farmers who would gather yield data for one field — and for only one year — before deleting that information.

“It’s not just the fault of the farmers. We haven’t done a good job of helping farmers understand how to use the information generated by the technology,” says Hall, formerly with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). “When yield monitors first came out they were generating maps, and farmers had two or three years of maps and people were saying, ‘How do we use this information now?’ So there was this lag-time of not only the technology but the application as well and farmers began to lose interest because they were paying for a service that wasn’t helping their bottom line.”

What might also be required is more research to confirm some of the recommendations coming from the data gleaned from the fields or the soils. But that’s an added challenge given the ebb and flow of new systems and technologies, and the subsequent slowdown to establish learning curves and familiarity.

Fewer than half of farmers use data from a yield monitor to actually manage their fields.

Fewer than half of farmers use data from a yield monitor to actually manage their fields.
photo: File

Hall also makes a very interesting point about most of what growers do in a field being visual: the growth of a crop, tillage, the management of weeds, pests and diseases, the harvest — they all have a visual component. But with precision ag, things aren’t as readily apparent. Soil testing, fertility programs, electro-conductivity, pH and soil organic matter — they’re all sub-surface elements that are measured but seldom seen. And like no-till farming, there is no one- or two-year visible payback. That can take five, eight, even 10 years, which often means the overall value is diminished in the chase for short-term improvements.

Raymer had a similar run-in early in 2015 with a group of seed growers. As he outlined the treasure trove of data and information that a 30-inch grid sample could yield, one grower complained that such measurements would cost him “at least $4 to $5 per acre per year for your basic 15-map package.” What wasn’t as apparent was the value of the information being gleaned from the soils, particularly as a benchmark, and then using that as a guideline going forward. That value went far beyond just $4 or $5 per acre. Yet when prices are good, money flows easily, be it on a new truck, a new tractor or a land purchase.

“When things are tighter, where are farmers cutting back?” Raymer asks. “The fundamentals should always be there and that should be part of someone’s annual costs.”

Weber echoes many of Raymer’s experiences, stating that a grower’s frustration with earlier attempts makes it that much harder for the farmer to trust the technology, and convince him of the overwhelming value that these tools provide. Unfortunately, the perception remains that once a farmer brings advanced technology to his operation, using precision ag technologies will be simple. But the harsh reality is that expectations are often too high.

“When we actually can use the data and make money or save money with it, it becomes harder to engage the farmer to try it again,” says Weber. “It’s great to have a new tool, and it’s the same with the UAVs. We have to be very careful: there are limitations to it, but this is going to be a great tool down the road if we use it properly.”

The most powerful tool

Weber adds that too often, agriculture becomes bogged down with size as opposed to value. Farms are definitely getting bigger, and amidst the concerns about time management, planting and harvesting windows and seed and input costs, farmers are losing sight of profitability and the per-acre return. To a degree, it doesn’t matter whether they’re farming 200 acres or 5,200, the key is what each acre is returning.

“The most powerful tool we have in the tool box is our ability to observe,” adds Hall, saying that farmers can choose from high-tech or lower-tech tools. The point is to record those observations and then actually use them, he says. “We got into this stage where we’re thinking that we could manage the whole field uniformly. And we’re going back the other way now, where we’re saying, ‘OK, we’ve been managing them uniformly, we recognize there are big differences across a field and we have to start measuring those.’”

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