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Precision ‘agronomy’

Precision ag is rapidly evolving, with an emerging suite of benefits for producers

Has any segment of agri-food changed as much in the past 10 years as precision ag? What is certain is that the science’s power to extrapolate data points, generate better maps, recommend specific courses of action and lead growers to higher revenues is unparalleled.

The challenge though is still the same: Where to start?

For Mike Wilson, the simplest response is the best: start small and build where, why and how a system fits your own operation. The most important point with precision ag is to get started — start defining, learning and building. With a lot of the offerings in precision ag, there’s been a considerable amount of noise created and it’s against that din that Wilson and others are always trying to identify a clear direction.

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It’s better if it’s simple to follow and easy to build on because that reduces the chances of discouraging the grower from exploring more applications that might distract from a primary course of action.

One way of simplifying things is in the terminology: instead of “precision ag,” Wilson calls it “precision agronomy.”

“The way we look at it is, ‘Let’s find a problem that needs a solution, and let’s use precision ag to measure and apply a product to solve that problem,’” says Wilson, affiliate program lead with Veritas, based in Chatham, Ont. “That’s instead of the other approach where we find a piece of technology that looks cool and shiny, and we see if we can make it fit into a problem that we might not even have on our farm. Every farm operation is different and therefore it can get very confusing very quickly.”

Wilson cites remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) or drones as an example. A decade ago, they were promoted as quick fixes for any number of problems faced by farmers. Although they can generate bytes of usable data, they’re not equipped to determine the root cause of a problem in a field. That requires an agronomist, a certified crop advisor (CCA) or an astute grower to be those “boots on the ground” — to extrapolate information and render recommendations that solve an issue.

“We want to be that easy button for the farmer,” says Wilson, adding that contrary to conventional thinking, a yield monitor is not required for working with precision ag. “It’s a lot more challenging if you want return on investment numbers and some proof. But we can take the data we have now, fly your field and create a nitrogen prescription or a seeding prescription based off that image, and plant or have your ag retailer apply nitrogen or a fungicide. You can create zones for soil sampling and begin variable rating fertilizer off those zones being created from an image.”

That’s where he advises a grower to go back to the agronomic picture of their farm. What’s the agronomic reason for using a precision ag tool? What’s the low-hanging fruit or a customer’s “pain point?”

In Wilson’s experience, the primary concern for almost all farmers is variability across a field. How can they manage a patch of weeds in one area or poor emergence or a nutrient deficiency in another? Managing those things with greater efficiency and efficacy leading to greater cost-efficiency is the purpose behind precision ag.

For Wilson, it’s also about finding the validation from the data being generated that leads to a measurable return on investment in the technology. From there, he wants to focus on partnering with leaders in the agronomy, advisory and ag retail sector.

Production efficiency

A revolutionary tool used under Veritas’s Affiliation Program goes beyond cost-of-production or break-even calculations. In a presentation dubbed “Validating VR Data for Higher Profits at Field Scale,” Wilson explains the concept of “production efficiency,” a relatively new metric for success and profitability. Using a mapped layout of his home farm near Blenheim, Ont., he shows the clearly delineated zones on the field, i.e. where a municipal drain was installed or a gravel ridge where crops tend to be stressed, and the back headland on another ridge where there’s animal feeding.

From there, he can generate six different maps, including profit ($/ac.), break-even yield increase (bu./ac.), break-even expense decrease ($/ac.), return on investment (ROI)(%), break-even commodity price ($/bu.) and production efficiency (bu./$1,000).

It’s the production efficiency that’s most telling.

Soil organic matter is difficult to quantify visually but is an integral part of any soil test.
photo: Ralph Pearce/Supplied

“How many bushels are we creating per thousand dollars spent?” poses Wilson. “It’s not bushels per acre anymore — we’re almost getting to that butter-fat per feed ratio that dairy producers use. For every thousand dollars of input I’m spending in the field, how many bushels are created?”

Wilson looks at the gravel ridge and sees an opportunity to apply lime — because he has soil tested that field and knows the conditions in specific zones. If he can amend the soil, he can get those nine to 18 bushels of corn back, which might make it profitable on its own. Using the same tool, he can see that he needs to cut production costs by, say, $40 to $80 to get that area profitable.

By the map’s calculation, Wilson also sees that he needs to recover $400 an acre on that back headland — which leads to a big learning, i.e. “stop farming the headland.”

“We know that back portion is bad — we’ve always known it was bad, but my Dad wasn’t thrilled when I showed him where we’re losing $400 an acre every time we plant that back headland in corn,” says Wilson.

It wasn’t enough for him to show that overall, the farm made $200 per acre profit on average, with a 200 bu./ac. crop and the inputs used after land rent. “A tool like this really starts to shine light on areas that we can help. When we look at this break-even yield increase, that headland needs another 92 bushels of corn.”

When tapping into this kind of information, other possibilities emerge. Maybe Wilson can apply for the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program and create a wildlife habitat — that pays him $100 to $150 per acre. Adding that against land rent, they might break even on that land and not lose money. Or they could cut P and K applications in half and allow his crops to mine the soil.

On the seed side, he could cut his seed rate from 32,000 seeds per acre to 28,000, or look at where and how his corn crop responds to N applications and in lower-response areas, apply 100 pounds of nitrogen, saving another $40 on that zone.

The five per cent rule

Another timely development came in 2018 when Wilson heard about the “five per cent rule.” The first mention came from Dr. Danny Klinefelter of Texas A&M at the Southwest Agricultural Conference, followed by Kristjan Hebert of Hebert Grain Ventures from Saskatchewan at the FarmSmart Conference. Wilson heard about it again in 2019 from Dr. David Kohl of Virginia Tech, during the Great Lakes Crop Summit. Essentially, it calls for increasing crop yields by five per cent, decreasing input expenses by five per cent and boosting grain marketing by five per cent.

“This is what precision ag was invented for,” says Wilson. “It’s for finding these opportunities, and if we do it right, we can double our profit.”

In the example that Wilson provides, a farmer with a 200-bu./ac. yield receiving $3.50 per bushel and $600 per acre in expenses will have a $100 per acre profit. Applying the five per cent rule, yield goes to 210 bu./ac., the price becomes $3.68 per bushel and expenses drop to $570 per acre, leaving a profit of $203 per acre. On the negative side, losing five per cent on yield and expenses leaves 190 bu./ac. and $3.32 per bushel price, with $631 per acre in expenses. That’s a profit of just $1 per acre.

Soil pits provide a glimpse of a soil’s other attributes, including texture, structure and colour.
photo: Ralph Pearce/Supplied

The trick, of course, is finding where exactly that five per cent opportunity is hiding.

“In reality, this is what’s happening today on the farm. Yield goes from 100 to 300 and we’re farming that 200-bu./ac. average and farming that little percentage just right,” says Wilson. “Yet the farmer’s opportunity is at the far left and the far right, and the only way we can capitalize and find that five per cent is with technology. There’s no other way we can do that.”

Proceed with caution

For Paul Sullivan, precision ag’s impact on agriculture is similar to what Wilson and the Veritas team advocate: find the right tool and the right process to match a farmer’s agronomic needs and management specifications. Sullivan believes it’s important to use a yield map for variable-rate application scripts with caution. A yield map identifies the variation in yield but advisors, agronomists, dealers and their customers need to dig deeper than just turning out a VR script.

Sullivan echoes Wilson’s contention that scripting and defining zones is too limiting for the technology. Its real use should concentrate on improving profitability by taking more production parameters into account. It’s what the technology has been built to do — to measure more than just one facet of production — it can handle incorporating hybrid characteristics, crop N management and fungicide usage.

“The most important aspect of all this technology is it gives us the opportunity to evaluate what we’re doing in a straightforward approach,” says Sullivan, a CCA and operator of P.T. Sullivan Agro in Kinburn, Ont. “But it requires planning and a commitment to validate what’s been done. Then we can take our production profitability to the next level in all field crops.”

It’s not simple, adds Sullivan. It takes effort and money, and it also takes people and time to think about it. In a lot of these instances, the technology has led what growers are looking at in light of the technology they have available to them. And in that rush maybe the industry hasn’t had the time and opportunity to learn what it should be doing with those technologies. That’s what Sullivan likes about Veritas: they’re putting the technology to work and defining the profitability that comes from using the system.

“The Veritas process has been looking at profitability and looking at where things are actually making money,” notes Sullivan. “It’s certainly another way of looking at it. It’s similar to looking at plot results and looking only at the yield and then looking at the most profitable — and realizing it’s the best way to look at things.”

Again, Sullivan echoes Wilson, advising growers not get bogged down, either in the chase for new systems or new tools. Start slowly and build, and work at finding the right solutions for your farm, particularly ones that will improve profitability and create new production facets that can augment the “total picture” of a farm.

In his own operation, he didn’t wait for yield maps; he started to develop soil zones based on texture and then used those to determine which parts of a field needed lime or which parts needed more or less fertilizer.

“Then we used those as a basis with other tools — like yield map information — to confirm and update those soil maps that we used,” says Sullivan. “We need a reason for what we’re doing, not just that we can do it. That’s part of the whole situation.”

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