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Crop Talk – Intro to Precision Ag


Example of Profit/Loss Map


Hello all!

Today we are talking about precision ag and how it can potentially benefit you. I want to start off by explaining what is precision ag and what isn’t.

Things such as row shut-offs, precision seed plates, automatic section control, and auto-steer are not precision ag, but they fit into the same realm. There is no disputing that innovations such as these have increased profitability on the farm as a whole by saving seed and chemical or preventing yield-robbing overlaps. If you haven’t invested in these areas yet, I would strongly recommend planning to do that in the future.

Now that we have decided what is not precision ag, let’s talk about what is. There are many examples of precision ag and it can be broken down into multiple categories:

Variable Rate Fertilizer – This is probably the most well-known category. The concept is relatively simple to understand – every farmer knows the spots in their fields that seem to have limited yield potential. It seems like no matter what you do, the yield has a ceiling and never reaches our yield goal of 200 bu. As an example, let’s say those poor acres yield 120 bu.

On the other side of that coin, there are acres in the field that always seem to produce higher than the yield goal, implying there may be high potential there. Let’s say it yields 220 bu.

If the poor acres never yield over 120 bu, does it really make sense to fertilize those acres for 200 bu? What about the higher yielding acres? Would they benefit from more fertilizer?

This is where a variable rate fertilizer prescription comes in. The prescription is designed to reallocate that fertilizer from the poor acres to the high potential acres. I want to emphasize this point – very rarely does a variable rate program result in decreased fertilizer usage. The goal is to be more efficient with the fertilizer and increase profit by managing at acre-level instead of field-level.

Variable Rate Seeding – This is a similar concept to variable rate fertilizer. Prescriptions can be built so that the planter will adjust planting population on the go based on pre-determined management zones in the field.

Using the previous example, would a corn field require 32,000 plants/acre to yield 120 bu? Probably not. If you wanted to push the yield higher than 220 bu on the good acres, would you leave your population at 32,000 plants/acre? Maybe, but we already added more fertilizer. Why not take 2,000-3,000 seeds from the poor acres and move it to the high potential acres?

By reallocating the seed and fertilizer, we have invested more in the highly productive acres without increasing input costs and no additional effort.

Variable Rate Irrigation – This is a relatively new category compared to the rest of precision ag. Every field has it’s own challenges. Most have more than one soil type, which presents a challenge, particularly when irrigating.

What part of the field do you check when determining to start the pivot? The driest soil or the wettest soil? Does your field have any large hills that water tends to run off? What if I told you over-watering can be just as harmful as under-watering? If you have ever had plants die due to water accumulation, you know this is true. Maybe you have large hill sides that don’t yield very well. It just might be due to run-off.

Using variable rate irrigation, we can negate issues such as these by applying water where it is needed. There are two distinct ways to vary water: sectors and zones.


Illustration of Sectors vs. Zones

Sectors are relatively simple. A prescription is designed to speed up and slow down the pivot based on the most prevalent soil type in each sector. Sectors are made made up of degrees. A full circle would be 360 degress, with each sector being a minimum of 1 degree.

Zones get more complex. As you can see in the picture on the right, the field is broken into zones based on soil type. Each nozzle has a solenoid that varies the amount of water applied per individual nozzle. This provides a more precise application across the field.

Zone management is more accurate, but also more costly to implement. Sector management can easily be retrofitted to older systems and is a cheaper alternative.

As you can see, there are many different ways precision ag can be implemented on your farm. The key is finding the pieces that will increase your profitability.

If you have any questions regarding what was discussed in today’s article, contact your local agronomist at Farmer’s Coop.

Make it a great week!