Sunbelt farmers hope precision agriculture technology provides opportunities to improve efficiency but express some dissatisfaction at programs that don't speak the same language as other programs or are difficult to set up, maintain or work with.
A group of farmers, scientists and industry representatives discussed the possibilities and pitfalls of precision agriculture in a round table discussion at the recent National Conservation Tillage Systems Cotton and Rice Conference in Houston.
Participants ranged in experience from none at all to several years with yield monitors, site-specific applications and numerous programs and systems.
Ed Barnes, associate director for agricultural research at Cotton Incorporated, moderated the session and surveyed participants on their experience and knowledge of precision agriculture techniques.
“Most want a better understanding of precision agriculture benefits,” Barnes said. “Some need information on how to get started. Others want to learn how to do more with the information.”
He said a common problem among experienced users is communication. “Communication between systems is improving but is still a problem,” he said. “We may experience difficulty from an Ag Leader to a Raven to a John Deere unit.”
John Bradley, director of research for the Agriculture Center in Memphis, is trying to improve communication between systems. “Some systems simply don't talk to others,” he said. “We're trying to identify which ones do. Precision agriculture is the next wave, the next big change following conservation tillage.”
Barnes recommended farmers demand more information about system communications capabilities before they buy.
“You guys pay the money,” he said. “You need to make manufacturers aware of system needs and the need for one system to communicate with another. Ask, when you're shopping, what a specific system talks to.”
Keffe Felty, an Altus, Okla., cotton and wheat farmer, said communication between systems has been a problem. “Some work better than others,” he said.
Felty, who has used precision agriculture for several years, is trying to use collected data to improve overall farm management.
Farmer Ed Mathers said yield monitors are a good first step in precision agriculture. “Yield maps are an advantage,” he said. “We can see benefits of rotation.”
Bradley said maps allow growers to “see things they didn't know or things they did know about a field but couldn't quantify. It's a good place to start, a way to develop a baseline.”
Several farmers said yield maps help with on-farm testing. They get accurate information on variety differences, fertility regimes, and various irrigation levels. They said eliminating weigh wagons to determine yield improves on-farm testing.
Identifying areas in fields that consistently produce poor yields also helps improve efficiency, farmers said. Consensus among participants indicated grain yield monitors are more accurate than those on cotton harvesters.
With either, identifying weak areas in fields can save money.
“Some fields will not make yield regardless of what you do,” Barnes said. “Sometimes farmers simply have to give up on them. They may be losing money on parts of the field; now they can identify these spots with yield monitors.”
Bradley said fields that average 2 to 2.5 bales of cotton per acre may have low-yielding areas that prevent averaging as much as 4 bales. He said some areas would not yield more than a bale per acre, “no matter what we do. Most fields are not uniform.”
Maurice Wolcott, geospatial technologies researcher at Louisiana State University, said a farmer with a 300-acre cotton field could “make money on 100 acres and lose money on another 100. In some cases, he'd decide to add another 300 acres to increase profit.”
A more efficient option, Wolcott said, would be to identify the weak 100 acres and adjust management. In some cases, giving up on that 100 acres could be justified, but not always.
“Some areas can be improved,” Wolcott said. “It depends on where the farm is and what the problem is. A farmer may be doing something wrong, so it's best to diagnose the problem before trying to treat it. Folks don't go to doctors who treat before diagnosing.”
He said something as simple as a micronutrient deficiency could be causing low yields. It could be nematodes or drainage problems. We can improve that.”
“It makes sense to get another opinion,” Bradley said. “Get someone who is unbiased to check it. You may be overlooking something.”
Keith Bram, an El Camp, Texas, corn, cotton, sorghum and soybean grower, talked about a large south Texas field with heavy clay on one end of the field and lighter, sandy soil on the other.
“In a year with a lot of rain, one end made 180 bushels of corn and the other made 110. In a drought year, the heavier soil made 180 and the lighter soil made zero.”
Wolcott said farmers need to use data from aerial imagery, yield monitors and other sources to develop their own recommendations and management programs. “Recommendations are not always accurate,” he said, “because many times they are based on general conditions.”
Precision agriculture and accurate data within fields allow farmers to devise more accurate management programs.
“The only way to know is to do on-farm research,” he said.
“Integrating the data into management is the key,” Barnes said. “Put pieces of information together and see where they intersect. The potential exists to improve efficiency, but it's still not as easy as we would like it to be.”
One farmer said he had used precision technology for several years and had collected a lot of data from the system but had not found a way to make it pay. He also said equipment he bought just three years ago is already obsolete.
Barnes said some logical uses of precision technology would be to vary fertilizer or growth regulator rates and to adjust cotton defoliant applications. Incorporating electro-conductivity data with yield maps and aerial imagery adds other facets to data collection and management.
“Manage as many aspects of production as possible with data,” Barnes said. “That spreads equipment costs and improves efficiency.”
“The goal is to use data to help make decisions,” said Mark Hebert of Delta Swift. To do that, he said, equipment and software must be more user friendly.