Equipment and seed are more expensive, yet grain prices are lower. Farms are getting bigger, yet, to squeeze out a profit, it seems farmers must chisel thousand-acre fields into grids the size of postage stamps.

Today's farmers may feel more like the victims than the victors in Norman Borlaug's Green Revolution. We're producing more than ever and making less than before. But is it possible a gadget-ridden group of technologies collectively referred to as precision agriculture can help pay the bills and feed the world?

Precision indecision

A recent survey of 166 tech-savvy Farm Industry News readers shows that they are split in their attitudes toward precision agriculture. Even though more than 40% own a yield monitor and 34% use grid sampling, a full 64% don't use any precision agriculture tools at all.

And although more than 70% rated the potential usefulness of precision ag tools as good to excellent, half of the respondents still said they aren't sure whether they will be adding the technology to their farms anytime soon. Nonetheless, their outlook is optimistic, with more than 90% stating that precision agriculture tools will someday be necessary, useful or even an exciting technology revolution.

What's in it for me?

Potential precision ag benefits that ranked very high in our survey included improved record keeping, increased yield, reduced input costs and enhanced conservation efforts. Overall response was neutral about whether the technology saves time or labor. Of those who already grid sample, more than 66% surveyed said increased profitability has covered the added expense in time and technology.

Of those surveyed, more than 30 went beyond the standard grid sampling, variable rate fertilizer scenario, offering potential uses for precision agriculture tools that ranged from self-guided machines to disease tracking. One extremely optimistic farmer wrote that he hopes he can someday operate his tractors via remote control from his Kentucky lake cabin.

Barriers

Not everyone is a true believer in precision ag, and a few appear to be dead-set against the idea. One curmudgeonly Kansas wheat farmer wrote that adopting the technology is merely a way to increase employment at the local co-op. He said precision farming just doesn't pay in his area. Most respondents were more pragmatic, however, citing the high cost of equipment, insufficient data about profitability, lack of qualified precision ag technicians, and too little time and know-how to deal with all the data as their reasons for not using the technology.

Some farmers said they know their farms well enough that they don't need precision ag tools to identify and chart problem areas in their fields. Others said their farms are too small to make the technology pay, or that grain prices are too low. And roughly half of the respondents said that if they do try the technology, they will prefer to let custom applicators or other experts handle it for them.

For a complete directory of precision ag products and services, visit our precision product file.

On the grid


As profit margins on chemicals, seed and fertilizer have gotten tighter, co-ops have adapted by selling their expertise in variable rate technology as a per-acre service. Will their services pay off for you? We asked Growmark precision farming manager Sid Parks some key questions about variable rate profitability.

What's the typical return on a precision ag investment?

Every situation is different, and because of the vast variability in soils and individual farm practices, there are no profitability guarantees. It is important to consider both potential increases in yield and reductions in inputs weighed against the extra costs. For the customers we serve, our data typically show a $2 to $6 net gain per acre per year from variable application of phosphorus and potassium fertilizers, with two fields in three benefiting from variable application. This is influenced by the variability and range of the soil test nutrients, cost of gathering information and implementing actions, as well as the crop price and field productivity levels.

How do you know if a particular field will respond well to precision applications?

You don't. Therefore you first need to collect some information. For farmers considering a precision ag program, I'd recommend starting in fields where the topography or soil type varies significantly, where past management practices differ, or where you see dramatic changes in yield as you go through a field.

Which types of precision applications have the best payback?

Again, it depends on your field. Most often though, because of the effect pH has on crop growth and herbicide efficacy, we find that you'll get the best payback from balancing a field's pH level using a variable rate lime application. Variable rate phosphorus and potassium applications are next. Field mapping is also useful in spot treatment of problem weed areas and determining whether or not to apply other nutrients to specific areas of the field.

Does precision agriculture make sense with today's low grain prices?

Actually, when profit margins are tight, it makes even more sense to monitor your inputs closely, and that's exactly what site-specific management provides farmers. Many times, you put about the same amount of product on your field, you simply redistribute the inputs to where they'll give you the biggest potential yield response.

Additionally, we've found in some fields variable rate technology isn't justified. A uniform rate is recommended that is less than might have been traditionally used because past applications may have been done without a producer testing fields frequently, if at all. Grid sampling provided the additional information from which we could base the nutrient recommendation.

Are a lot of farmers in your area using precision ag services?

The rate of technology adoption varies by area. Here in central Illinois, we started helping farmers integrate site-specific practices earlier than some other regions, making significant inroads as early as 1994 with continued growth since then. Adoption in these areas has slowed because significant portions of the acres are already done. Areas which started more slowly are seeing continued growth of precision ag services.

Overall, we expect to see peaks and valleys in the adoption curve. As this technology improves and farmers become more familiar with it, we expect our business to continue growing. In the future, I believe site-specific management will become the standard used by most farmers.

What about farm size?

No farm is too small to take advantage of grid sampling and variable rate applications. Many of our smaller customers can't afford to buy precision ag tools themselves, but they can still benefit from grid sampling, variable rate application or data mapping services provided through their FS co-op. It really doesn't matter if the farm is 40 acres or 4,000. The power in collecting and using the information is to make smarter management decisions.

FS/Growmark offers grid sampling and mapping, variable rate application, data mining and data management services in six Midwest states and Ontario. For more information, contact Growmark Inc., Box 2500, Bloomington, IL 61702, 309/557-6247, www.growmark.com.

FIN survey

Top seven well-known precision ag names:

John Deere/Greenstar
Ag Leader
Trimble
Case IH
Micro-Track Systems
Outback
AGCO