Top 10 Precision Trends

The CropLife/Purdue Precision Agriculture Adoption Survey involves a five-month process of intensive work. The questionnaire is tweaked and tuned to collect information relevant to today, while much of the core survey remains the same to ensure its relevance to data collected in the late 1990s. After two rounds of mailings, results are compiled and interpreted into the main report presented in the preceeding pages.

This year, Purdue’s Bruce Erickson, who did the lion’s share of the work on the survey, and Paul Schrimpf had a “debriefing” conversation about the survey findings and came up with 10 key trends that the survey seems to indicate.

1. Covering Costs
Precision profits are still hard to come by, with 57% of respondents reporting they are not covering their fixed costs or making a profit — the same percentage as in the 2009 survey.

2. Optimism Outweighs Realities, But …
On surveys dating back to almost the beginning, we have asked retailers to project out three years as to the growth or decline of precision agriculture services in their businesses. And historically, optimism has reigned about the future of precision technology. The reality, however, has virtually never matched what the retailer anticipates, or hopes, will come true.

This year, the average increase in the major precision offerings were anticipated to grow anywhere from 6% to 10% by 2014. But while the actual percentage has never panned out, the significant degree of future optimism indicates that retailers are feeling positive about future prosperity derived from the services they offer.

3. Precision Is Mainstreaming
A curious “trend” expressed in the survey results was that the number of retailers offering precision agriculture “services” appears to be dropping in key categories, including georeferenced soil sampling and fieldmapping with GIS. Certainly, retailers may be outsourcing these services to other entities, or some growers might be doing some of this work on their own.

But we also feel that it’s just as likely an indication that these services have become so integrated into full-service retailers that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate it out as an a la carte service. Precision services are packaged up into a larger, more holistic offering.

4. Spatial Precision Still Too Complex
Precision technology has experienced some points of exponential growth in recent years, but virtually all of them have benefits that are essentially efficiency-oriented. Adoption of precision practices that involve collecting, interpreting and taking action of data have remained relatively stagnant over several surveys. In the early part of the 2000s, a challenged farm economy took a significant toll on the use of techniques such as variable-rate fertilizer (VRA), and revealed that income challenged farmers did not have much stomach for georeferenced fertilizer recommendations when inputs were high and crop prices low.

Could regulation aimed at reducing fertilizer use inject life into VRA fertilizer practices? Could better, more compatible systems make a difference? Or could improvements in on-the-go sensor technology help to reduce complexity and improve adoption? It’s a longer term issue the precision industry will continue to deal with in the years ahead.

5. Lightbars Finally On The Ropes?
Automatic guidance has continued its torrid adoption pace, approaching two-thirds of retail respondents to the survey. The technology debuted on the survey in 2004 at less than 5%, so its rise as an agricultural technology could legitimately be called meteoric. And this year, we’re observing a virtually equal and opposite drop in the use of “manual guidance,” i.e. lightbars. With improving pricepoints and wider options than ever, it seems that we are seeing a “replacement” effect of one technology for the other.

6. Section Control … Zero To Hero
Thanks to its inclusion in virtually all professional grade sprayers today, and the retailer’s tendency to replace equipment on a fairly regular time interval, sprayer boom control has risen a gleam in someone’s eye to nearly four in 10 respondents using the technology over less than five years. For stewardship, efficiency, and product-saving, it’s a no-brainer capability for most retailers.

7. VRA Seeding Interest Explosion
Driven by the availability of highly precise seed clutch technology and embraced by seed companies trying to help growers optimize their seed planting and placement (and efficiently plant seeds that are increasing in price virtually every year), variable rate seeding is revealed on the survey as a significant area of interest. While there are conflicting views on the overall benefits of seed rate variation, it seems likely that it will continue to grow and mature as a precision ag technique and technology.

8. Barriers To Adoption: A Meaningful Drop?
We found it surprising that there is still so much concern about equipment compatibility and cost as barriers to retail adoption of technology. It’s true that both factors still hover around the 50% area, but vs. the 2004 survey, the number has dropped significantly. Recent industry alliances, pledges of enhanced compatibility and dropping prices on some of the most powerful technology may finally be eroding these as key challenges to retailer adoption.

9. Cost Reduction Is The Ultimate End
With the increasing cost of seed and inputs and spiking prices on the grain markets, the end game for technology up to now has most successfully focused on reducing risk and cost savings rather than on generating revenue. The next big thing — telemetry that ultimately transmit both highly accurate GPS signals and the Internet for data movement and collection — will tend to keep the focus in these areas.

10. Untangling GPS
Global positioning has gotten increasingly complex with the proliferation of real-time kinematic technology and, more recently, cellular-based signal alternatives. To get precision adoption beyond its current state, signal consistency and compatibility is needed.

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