Technology Today: A Grower's Perspective
How precision ag will grow in importance in the coming years.
February 17, 2011
iPads, iPhones, Droids, Blackberrys, autosteer, boom control and more. We have come a long way since the real debut of the PC in 1995. The World Wide Web was in its first full year and this new thing called e-mail invaded my life. We bought two bag phones a couple of years later for my mom and wife, and since dad was frugal enough not to put two-way radios in the tractors we confiscated the phones one spring.
I was in college at the time and my advisor put me onto something called eBay. What a mistake. All of the cool toys, tools, trucks and tractors to be had from everywhere were at my finger tips. I also remember ordering the John Deere Fundamental of Service book about precision agriculture. It showed an Ag Leader yield monitor in a JD combine.
Oh how times have changed! Who would have thought that technology would be this big and play such an important part of everyday life, definitely not me? Since that time I have learned to surf (the web), attach stuff to e-mail, Facebook, Blog and get up-to-date market information on my cell phone while my tractor drives itself. Out of all of those examples, and I don't care what anyone says, the last one is just cool.
As we plow into another year, one thing is certain ... TECHNOLOGY IS NOT GOING AWAY! This is both good and bad. The bad is that I can no longer work on some of my vehicles without being a computer whiz and having a computer plus the programs to tell me what is wrong. On the other hand, what amazing opportunities are available now and what will be in store in the future.
Just like smart phones and computers, precision ag technology is not going away. It is growing. The mergers in precision ag that happened last year is reminiscent of the wild and woolly car or tractor boom of last century. Everyone made something and they either went by the wayside or merged with another company.
Defining Precision Ag
Which leads us to precision ag technology. What is it? My definition is: "Precision ag is the use of all available technology in order to make better decisions to reduce costs, increase productivity, and to reduce our impact on the environment."
Precision ag is not going away and those involved with agriculture need to get on board or be left behind. I know this is a bold and blunt statement, but if you plan on competing in agriculture in this century and beyond you need to start now.
Take a look at government programs, paperwork and regulations — they are not going away either. In fact, it is growing (some say like a weed with great resistance.) Whether you like it or not, this is the sandbox we play in. In fact another round of negotiations is getting ready to take place: Farm Bill.
With demands from the public for safe food, more water, clean water and fuzzy bunnies you can bet your bottom dollar that when the gavel sounds, more of that will be in "OUR" Farm Bill. Face it — growers are an endangered species that make up less than 1% of the population. The good news is we contribute greatly to the GDP and we are steady. We don't have the major mood swings of other industries.
One more challenge that we face in agriculture is a growing world population. The experts state that we need to double current output by the year 2050. This is where technology comes in. Just like my definition, it will take all technology to pull that rabbit out of the hat. Also, it starts with growers!
Demands for inputs such as fuel, fertilizer and water will become scarcer and cost more. This is where precision ag technology will help. By incorporating autosteer, boom control, yield monitors, remote sensing and smart phone technology (like to irrigation equipment), growers can reduce costs to become competitive and, by government standards, a friend of the environment.
How many passes does a grower make over a particular field in a year from planting through harvest through fall work? Is it four or seven or more? Using six passes as an average and an average cost of $25 (this would include fertilizer, chemical and harvest passes) per pass, if we were to save an average of 10% on each pass that would equate to a savings of $15 per acre.
On a 1,000-acre farm, the savings would be $15,000 in a year. That is huge and goes a long way to pay for new precision agriculture equipment. There are also side benefits, especially if mapping is incorporated. The result is a record for Uncle Sam, and at the same time it proves to environmentalists that we care about fuzzy bunnies.
Another challenge that needs to be dealt with is an aging agriculture workforce. This aging population has been told their whole life not to trust anything electrical, so there is a mental barrier that needs to be broken. The good news is that there are many anxious and excited young men and women wanting to work in ag at a college near you.
So where does my rambling lead? Precision agriculture must be adopted if an agriculture business is to survive and grow, that includes farmers and providers. The money spent on precision technology will easily pay for itself in two years, if not one.
To incorporate the technology properly one needs to know what the end result should be for the operation. Is applying variable-rate the goal, or is it to just incorporate autosteer and boom control? Or maybe you want to have better records to show that you are "an original environmentalist."
It's pretty clear that technology is critical to stay competitive, so what do you plan to do? Are you going watch the dance from the side or are you going to the prom with the queen?
Robert Blair, a grower based in Kendrick, ID, is a technology enthusiast with a taste for new stuff that increases yield, decreases cost, and makes him more efficient. A good friend of the editors of CropLifeÂ® magazine, he shared his thoughts on technology challenges and opportunities today and in the future.