Over the past decade, western Canadian growers have been adopting different aspects of precision farming. The results of a survey of attendees at the 2012 National No-Tillage Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, in January, showed 67 per cent of respondents used field mapping, the highest rate for any precision farming practice. Yield monitors, GPS guidance and variable rate fertilizer had all been adopted by almost half the farmers surveyed.
So is this technology providing results? Absolutely, and growers will want to both expand their definition of precision technology, and get ready to build on it for an even more precise future.
Solutions for today
Dan Owen, agronomy manager with Hudye Soil Services in Norquay, SK, says his customers are investing in precision technology as it becomes easier to use, more reliable and offers proven results.
“Growers are realizing the benefits of precision,” says Owen. “For example, autosteer is now so commonplace people almost forget that it’s part of precision agriculture. More of our growers are also using GPS-based technology to map their fields and to take a broad look at their progress.”
He says that as growers become more comfortable with field mapping, they invest in variable-rate fertilizer technology because it doesn’t have a large capital outlay and is easy to use. Owen has seen the benefits in Hudye’s own extensive field trials. He adds that variable-rate seeding and spraying are still in their early stages, with many growers needing more evidence before they invest in those technologies.
That’s where Steve Larocque comes in. Recognizing that many precision agriculture technologies and techniques are relatively new, and their merit yet to be fully quantified, Larocque tests out various practices and equipment on his small farm in Morrin, AB, putting them through their paces in real life situations for year-over-year analysis.
If something works, he recommends the product or practice to his customers as part of his consultancy business, Beyond Agronomy.
Farming to the data
“We approach precision agriculture by working toward the accurate placement of inputs first. Then we start to vary inputs across the landscape based on the data we collect,” says Larocque. “Just a few years ago our placement was purely random, and today we are on year three of controlled traffic farming using full RTK (real-time kinematic) GPS access with sub-inch accuracy.”
Controlled traffic farming is a relatively recent addition to the precision agriculture toolbox. It establishes traffic lanes, called tramlines, for all farm machinery — from seeder to combine — separating the crop from the equipment to reduce compaction and allow better movement of moisture.
RTK refers to the real-time kinematic radio towers that provide a high degree of accuracy by linking into the GPS systems that are becoming increasingly common in today’s field equipment. Larocque’s consistent tramlines have allowed him to get into the field days before his neighbours, and reduced his fuel costs by 10 per cent.
Noting that since most modern equipment is GPS-equipped, he suggests to his customers that they install a yield monitor on their field equipment to measure results. Yield monitors are simple to operate and plug into the GPS software to provide usable data that helps growers make more informed production decisions down the road.
In 2013, Larocque plans to put into service a custom-built nitrogen side dress tool bar on his sprayer. With the use of his permanent tram lines, RTK guidance and GreenSeeker technology — variable-rate application and mapping — he plans to apply variable-rate nitrogen in-season between the rows using coulters at a depth of two to three inches where roots have immediate access to nitrogen.
“If I see value in the GreenSeeker I plan to recommend it to my clients as another method of tracking, measuring and using field data,” he says. “We plan to use it as a tool to begin applying variable rate-nitrogen, fungicides, plant growth regulators and desiccants. It has a lot of potential for better use of inputs and more precise application.”
Then there’s the iPad. Maybe it’s not strictly an agricultural tool, but agronomists at Hudye have started field testing iPads using software that allows them to make real-time notes and mark the locations of, and issues within, a field.
Owen cautions that all the technology in the world can’t replace actual “ground truthing.” He says that the best precision approaches, the ones most likely to be adopted by growers as a group, work by mixing old school thinking with modern technology.