Where Is Site-Specific Agriculture Headed?

Precision agriculture and site-specific technologies have been around for well over a decade now. Over that time, new technologies and services have been introduced — including new types of sensors, autosteer GPS guidance systems, and soil electroconductivity mapping. At this point, GPS and the concept of variable-rate application are fairly well understood by both growers and retail dealers. The question now is where the technology and associated services will go next.

As part of the 13th Annual Precision Agriculture Survey sponsored by CropLife magazine and Purdue University’s Center for Food and Agricultural Business, retail dealers were asked what they thought Precision 2.0 would look like. They were also asked to rate several barriers to the further expansion of precision agriculture — customer issues, dealer issues, and issues with the technology (these issues were also explored in 2004). The following results are based on responses from the 275 dealers who responded to the 2008 survey.

Many dealers did see changes coming. Some focused on changes at the grower level and mentioned the need to make technology more user-friendly to support more on-farm growth in use of precision services.
   â–  Grower purchase and use of GPS technology for planting/harvesting purposes is where this area is going. (AL)
   â–  Compatibility and reliability of precision equipment continues to be a challenge. The complexity is a major drawback for many growers — they don’t want to take the time to learn. (OH)
   â–  Data interpretation. My customers have data overload. They need help to make the data they are getting usable. (KS)

Several technology changes were mentioned by responding dealers as part of the changes  needed to move precision agriculture to the next level:
   â–  More autosteering. Sprayer that recognizes weeds and applies herbicides only to the weed; seed that carries multiple traits to overcome insect and herbicide issues; multiple-use application equipment. (MN)
   â–  I see the future becoming more technical from the office’s standpoint — everything being implemented on the computer in the office before being put into the machine. (IL)
   â–  Right now the industry is doing a good job of helping the producer manage his inputs. Next step is on-the-go sensing and data pooling for analysis. (MO)
   â–  RTK sub-inch technology on everything. (IN)

The responses to the open-ended question about Precision 2.0 are summarized in Fig. 1. Increased use of variable-rate fertilizer application, often driven by increased input prices, was the most common change, mentioned by a quarter of the respondents answering this question (24%). Changes in data analysis and handling were mentioned by 23% of the dealers — often with the idea that more efficient and quicker data analysis was going to be required to get to the next level. Variable-rate seeding was seen to be an important growth area in the future (21%), followed by increased variable-rate application of chemicals (15%). The other two areas where more than 10% of the respondents mentioned changes were increases in autosteer/in-field robotics and overall growth in precision application (not specifically for fertilizer or chemicals) due to increased input costs/lower product prices (15% and 10%, respectively).

Barriers To Growth

Survey respondents were asked to rate a series of issues as to how much of a barrier they were to the growth and expansion of precision agriculture. Figures 2 through 4 show the percentage of respondents who agreed or disagreed with each customer, dealer, and technology issue listed. A similar list of issues was explored in the 2004 CropLife/Purdue Precision Survey.

Dealers were almost evenly split on whether they agreed, disagreed, or were neutral that the cost of precision services to their customers was greater than the benefits they received, and that farm income pressure limits the use of precision services (Fig. 2), with 33% of the dealers agreeing that the cost was greater than the benefits and 34% agreeing that farm income was a limiting factor. 

Though these two factors were also the top two customer barriers in 2004, the impact seems to have decreased dramatically. At that time, 72% of the dealers responding to the survey said that farm income limits the use of precision technologies and 53% said that the grower costs were greater than the benefits.

Compared to farm income and costs vs. benefits, there was less agreement about the other barriers to growth in precision technology adoption. For approximately one-quarter of the dealers, interpreting data/making decisions was believed to be too time-consuming for customers and they felt customers lack confidence in site-specific recommendations. However, 41% of the responding dealers disagreed with each statement.

Over half of the respondents did not believe that soil types limited precision profitability or that local topography limited the profitability and use of precision technologies. But, both soil types and topography seemed to be a problem for 20% of the responding dealerships. The least agreement about barriers was that all customers who benefit from using precision are already using it (61% disagreed, only 18% agreed), suggesting that there are still many growers who could benefit from precision technologies that are not currently using them.

When looking at issues that are creating barriers for dealers, almost 6 out of 10 (57%) (see Fig. 3) said that they just weren’t able to charge fees high enough to make precision services profitable. Over half agreed that the cost of the equipment limits their precision offerings (51%). Almost half said they had a challenge finding employees who could deliver precision services (49%) and almost as many (45%) agreed that the cost of employees was high enough to limit the growth of precision services. Another concern that 44% of the dealers had was that it was hard to demonstrate the value of precision technologies to growers. And, for almost 4 out of 10 of the respondents (38%), another barrier was that competitors priced precision services at unprofitable levels. For all of these issues, there were 20% to 25% of the respondents who disagreed that the issue was a barrier to expansion.

The respondents were more evenly split (approximately one-third disagreed, one-third agreed, and one-third were neutral) on the issues of it being hard to create a precision program that adds significantly more value for the grower than a traditional program, and that not many growers in their area were interested in precision agriculture services.

The most disagreement occurred with the issue that a lack of manufacturer support for precision services limits their ability to provide such services (disagreed with by 42% while only 19% agreed).

Compared to 2004, several of these issues have declined in perceived importance. In 2004, almost three-quarters of the dealers (72%) believed that the cost of equipment to the dealer was a limitation in growth of precision technology (compared to only half of the dealers in 2008). Almost two-thirds (65%) of the dealers in 2004 said that growers were just not interested in precision services — and this has dropped by almost by half to 34% in 2008. Demonstrating value to the customer was a challenge to 63% of the dealers in 2004 compared to only 44% in 2008. Opinions on most of the other issues were similar both years.

The biggest technology issue that is felt to be preventing expansion of precision agriculture is a common characteristic of technology overall. Over 6 out of 10 respondents agreed that precision equipment changes too quickly and increases the costs of offering precision services. Four out of 10 respondents (45%) said that incompatibility across precision equipment and technology was a problem. Respondents were fairly split about the complexity of the equipment with 39% who did not believe that precision equipment was too complex for employees, 33% believing that it was too complex, and the remaining 28% neutral on the issue. Overall, there was not a lot of agreement that accuracy was a problem (in either the data collection technologies or the precision application technologies).

Overall, most of the technology issues were rated about the same in 2004 and 2008. In both years, over 6 out of 10 dealers agreed that the equipment changed too quickly, one-third agreed the incompatibilities between equipment and technologies were a challenge, and just under one-third of the dealers said the equipment was too complex for their employees.

Summary

Overall, precision agriculture has become much more accepted as part of a grower’s way of farming as well as in the retail dealer’s business. The cost of the equipment, proving the value of precision technology, and farm income are no longer the barriers they were four years ago. Many dealers see more streamlined technology and data collection/analysis in the future of precision agriculture. However, hand in hand with this continues to be one of the biggest barriers — that of rapidly evolving equipment and technologies that may or may not be compatible. Most dealers feel that there are many growers who are not using precision services, but who could be. This upside is balanced against pricing pressures and the cost of investing in new equipment and technology. In this new era of crop agriculture, the Precision 2.0 story will be one worth watching closely as it unfolds. 

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