Terry Griffin wants to know how precision agriculture is being adopted in, and how it is affecting, his native Mid-South.

A University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture professor of economics, for many years, he has studied technologies ranging from producer uses (and profitability) of yield monitors to, more recently, adoption of automatic steering and how precision agriculture improves the farmer’s workaday life.

Griffin spoke with Delta Farm Press in late September. Among his comments:

On how precision agriculture can be categorized…

“Precision can be separated into two main categories – and this is true of any technology, especially information technology.

“One type involves information and science that is embedded within the technology itself. A classic agricultural example is Roundup Ready soybeans. A lot of technology went into the genetics but the user doesn’t have to understand it.

“The second type adds information. The classic example in agriculture is integrated pest management (IPM). This technology allows the user to make better decisions but takes a lot more user ability to make use of the information.

“Precision agriculture is the same way. When it first came out, we thought of ‘precision ag’ as yield monitors, GPS and soil sampling. Those are all great things and allowed growers to make really good decisions.

“However, you must be able to handle, analyze and interpret the data in order to understand what’s going on in the field. It takes a lot of skill to make use of yield and soil data.

“GPS guidance is a type of precision ag that is closer to the Roundup Ready mentality. The technology is built into the product and it takes less skill and ability to operate farm equipment and reduce overlaps and skips.

“So, there’s the technology with embedded science and the technology that is, I say, ‘information intensive.’

“The adoption curves are reflective of how precision agriculture is used. Yield monitors were commercialized in the early 1990s. It was 1999 when light bars came on the scene and 2004 when automatic guidance hit the market.

“Those adoption curves are much steeper than the yield monitors and soil sampling adoption curves. They’re just easier to use.”

A short history? Are you still working on the family farm?

“I’m from Paragould, Arkansas, in Greene County, and grew up on a row-crop farm. It’s still in operation but I haven’t spent time on a tractor in about 10 years.

“I got an undergraduate degree in agronomy and a master’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. For my master’s degree project I looked at the profitability of variable rate technologies and I began tracking the adoption of precision ag in the state.

“After that, I went to the University of Illinois and did precision ag work in the Midwest for four years. Then, it was off to Purdue for my Ph.D., where I worked on the theory of spatial analysis. Then, I came straight home to Arkansas.”

Profitablity

On the profitability exercises you did – have you updated those? Have you seen shifts in precision ag in the state?

“One of the things I did when I got back was to get into the USDA’s ARMS (Agricultural Resource Management Survey) database. ARMS is a survey that USDA does every year.

“It took me over 18 months to do that and I had to have security clearance. There’s some sensitive data in the survey. But all I was interested in was adoption levels.

“I tried to get data for only Arkansas or the Mid-South region … but that wasn’t feasible, so I went ahead and did the research for the whole country.

“However, if you look at the rice statistics (which was only surveyed in 2000 and 2006), those are pretty much Arkansas-specific. Arkansas has nearly half the U.S. rice production.

“Most of the farmers I talk to — those who call me — have automatic guidance on their equipment. That isn’t to say those farmers represent the average. The growers I talk to are interested in technology from the get-go, so it’s sort of a biased sample.

“Another thing I work with is spatial analysis of yield monitor data. Again, the farmers I talk to have yield monitors and GPS on their equipment.

“My feeling is probably a third, or less, of the farmers in the state have yield monitor technology. But those I speak with are part of that third.

“We have good evidence that agriculture service providers are making use of GPS navigation technologies.

“The Purdue/CropLife survey conducted by Whipker and Akridge each year reports that more than 80 percent of service providers use lightbars and more than half use automated guidance. The interesting thing here is that this indicates that those lightbars are not on the cutting edge but are rather the status quo.”

Is there a breakeven point for these technologies? Have you come up with a formula for growers to consider?

“Yes. For automatic guidance that’s especially true. I did a presentation on that a few years ago. With yield monitors, it isn’t as cut-and-dried.

“Nowadays, most every farmer has a cell phone in his pocket. Ask them, ‘Is it profitable?’ Of course, the answer depends on how they use it. It wouldn’t take too many times for a farmer to use the cell phone to call in for parts for machines that are torn up in the field before the phone pays for itself. But if he doesn’t use that phone, then it won’t be profitable.

“Yield monitors are the same way. Whether it is profitable depends on how the collected information is used. Data on its own has no value until someone makes use of it.

“I’m very interested in how farmers are using yield monitors. Research results suggest that, other than in cotton, farmers are using yield monitors mainly for moisture readings.

“They want to determine harvest logistics — where will I put this particular load of grain? Which dryer or elevator will get it based on X amount of moisture?

“The third highest use of yield monitors has been to conduct field-scale experiments (with the highest use of yield monitors in cotton). Farmers may want to check a field with, or without, a particular herbicide or fungicide. Or, maybe, they’re conducting their own variety trials.”

Farmers always testing

That goes back to your point about farmers giving you calls. They’re naturally curious anyway.

“True. And farmers are testing things every year — they do that just by the nature of farming. Sometimes those tests are an accident. A yield monitor allows us to measure those things.

“Back to profitability: if a farmer takes the collected yield monitor data and makes a better decision about what products to apply or what rate of seed to use on a specific soil, that provides a quantifiable, profitability answer.”

Are you seeing an uptick in adoption of automatic steering? How is it being used in the state?

“When I began doing analyses in the Midwest, it became obvious that automatic steering was easily profitable. However, there’s a lot less tillage work in that region compared to the Mid-South.

“In Arkansas, especially with rice farming, producers cover the ground many times with tillage equipment. Anytime we can reduce overlap with tillage equipment, it increases its value.

“For instance, if you have a 42-foot field cultivator, the standard assumption is that it overlaps 10 percent. That’s about 4 feet. If we can reduce the overlap to, say, 6 inches by using GPS guidance, that’s a big deal. The grower can cover more acres in a day and be more efficient.

“Some farmers who were working as many acres as they possibly could, added GPS guidance and can now take on additional fields because they’re so much more efficient.”

On quality of life…

“One thing that’s very interesting is farmers’ quality of life. Back in the 1970s, we saw more and more tractors with cabs. After a farmer got used to a cab, he didn’t want to give it up: less fatigue, less exposure to the elements and less grumpiness.

“GPS guidance is the same way — it can make things easier. Even if there isn’t an economic value, most farmers using it seem happier. At least that’s what they tell me. And their spouses and children are happier, too.”

One of the major issues with precision agriculture — and it may continue to be for a long time — is the integration of all these different technologies. Is that getting better?

“That’s a big deal. It’s been said that some of the technology manufacturers don’t play well together.

“The technology hasn’t been standardized yet. We’re having a lot of issues with getting different kinds of equipment to communicate.

“But it is getting better. There is a thrust from certain industry groups saying, ‘Let’s go ahead and standardize and we’ll all be better off.’”

What’s ahead

Anything coming in the next couple of years that farmers need to know about?

“In 2011, there will be a new capability that will help with on-farm experiments.

“One of the leading barriers to precision ag adoption is that we don’t have third-party experts readily available to handle and analyze data. Until that’s in place, many farmers won’t have the incentive to get yield monitors and other technology.

“But, there’s a group perfecting an automated spatial analysis system, which will be commercialized this winter. So, in 2011, farmers will have the opportunity to have their data uploaded into this new system, where it will be automatically analyzed.

“Results will be back to farmers in a much shorter time — perhaps hours. Currently, it takes me several days to handle and analyze data and I can only do a few data sets. This new system can do thousands of data sets at the same time. That’s a huge deal.

“People also ask about the possibility of robotic tractors. I doubt that ever happens, simply from a liability perspective. I don’t think there will be unmanned equipment running around the fields.

“True, there are some prototypes out now. Several universities have demonstrations of this. But I just don’t think that will happen.”

Top questions you get from farmers?

“They ask is there an example where GPS guidance is profitable for small farms?

“One of the leading examples is with older farmers who are close to retirement. By using these new technologies, they can continue to operate, even with neck and shoulder pains. Even on smaller farms that’s true. That’s a big deal for those affected.

On RTK guidance…

“A hot topic is RTK (real time kinematics) guidance. The accuracy with the systems is great — down to inches.

“To many, that seems extravagant and unnecessary. It is more expensive. But there are a lot of cases where the technology can pay for itself in contrast to lower grades of accuracy — especially if we’re applying inputs appropriately and site-specifically, reducing overlap.

“It’s very important where we’re putting out an input and needing to come back six months later to the same tracks. Lower levels of GPS may be able to get you close, but not accurate to the position that is often needed. RTK has great benefits there.

“Farmers also ask about yield monitors. We’ve been saying for 15 years, ‘If you’re going to use one, it’s important to calibrate the monitor and operate the combine/picker in a way that’s consistent with what the manufacturer recommends.’ You must operate the machine consistently — no unnecessary quick speed-ups or slowdowns.”