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Precision ag technology: Can you afford not to use it?

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 08 March 2018
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They say knowledge is power, and the same could be said about data. Now more than ever before, information collected from every inch of the field is driving management decisions. But it comes at a cost.

University of Wisconsin assistant professor and extension specialist Brian Luck explained how that cost can be justified at the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College Field Technology Seminar, held Jan. 5 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

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Precision technology is rapidly finding its way to farms of all sizes across the country, with the greatest adoption among those with a couple thousand acres or more. From guidance to implement steering to drones, farmers are using these advancements to take the guesswork out of decision-making.

In a University of Nebraska study of the profitability of precision technology, a regression of initial data showed each additional technology adopted resulted in a net farm income increase of $43,616 and a decrease of 1.04 percent in operating expense ratio.

However, depending on the type of technology, there may be an initial decrease in profit before gains are observed. For example, collecting data on yield or soil fertility may not realize increased profits in the first year, but as that information accumulates over a period of time, producers have the tools to make more accurate and informed choices.

“You may lose money initially, but as you start using it, eventually you will have 10 years’ worth of yield data,” Luck said. “In general, the decision-making will get better with time and more information.”

There is a strong economic potential for better management decisions that lead to higher productivity as more data is available. At a yield of 180 bushels per acre and $3 per bushel of corn, a mere 1 percent yield gain translates to $5.40 per acre; if yields improve by 3 percent, that’s $16.20 per acre.

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Some technologies do show immediate advantages, like variable rate application. Luck described a scenario of applying lime on a soil-sampled field that varied in need from 0 to 15 tons per acre. Assuming an average application rate of 3 tons per acre on a 120-acre field, the additional cost for lime would be $9,360. But with variable rate application, the total amount applied was 188.3 tons, for a cost savings of $4,897.

“We essentially cut the application rate in half, just using variable rate application,” Luck said. Further, by applying the necessary amounts of lime across the field, there should eventually be less variation in soil pH in subsequent years.

When it comes to seeding and planting, row unit drives can save farmers money up front by reducing inputs and minimizing over-planting. “You are immediately saving from not putting seed into end rows,” Luck said. He estimated a savings of $5.52 per acre in seed cost alone. Similarly, there are savings to be had with row and section control on spray booms, allowing for more precise chemical application and less waste.

In addition to serving as a cost-saving tool, precision technology can also be a convenience for the farmer. Auto-steering and guidance systems reduce operator fatigue and ease practices like contour farming, and they also save fuel and time. Luck noted on over 80 acres, a 2-foot overlap on a 20-foot implement results in about five extra passes at the end of the field.

There is also the potential for data to add value at the time of a land sale. “Will it add value when the land is sold?” Luck asked. “Yes, it’s valuable if another farmer is buying it.”

He warned, however, that accuracy is so important when collecting information. “If you aren’t calibrating yield monitors, you’re losing out on data,” he stated.

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Ultimately, precision technologies put to work in the fields have the potential for payback by putting a greater amount of control in the farmer’s hands.

“You can’t control the weather, but you can control some of the spatial variation in the field,” Luck said. “That’s why data is a big deal.”  end mark

Peggy Coffeen
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PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

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