Many cotton producers trying precision agriculture today are doing what they've always done when a new thing comes along — test first, keep it simple and start with a low-tech, low-cost approach.

Examples of this approach were evident during InfoAg Midsouth 2005, a regional precision agriculture conference held in Tunica, Miss.

Friars Point, Miss., cotton producer John McKee, who spoke about his experiences with variable-rate applications, said enthusiasm for precision agriculture should be tempered with the realities of the cotton economy.

“Other things are far more important to me — commodity prices, whether or not farm programs are going to be here in two years and the fact that biotechnology is getting more and more expensive in our area. To be honest, glyphosate drift has been so bad that I've had no choice but to use Roundup Ready crops.”

McKee, whose background is engineering, started working with precision agriculture seven years ago and prefers a low-tech, low-cost approach. “I'm a skeptic, and we try to do things on the cheap as much as possible.”

For example, McKee used a Veris machine (which measures soil electrical conductivity) to map a farm two years ago, then used a software program from FarmWorks to contour the data into management zones based on three soil types.

“I didn't use any fancy tools. I just sat down at the computer and for each zone, I assigned a rate for nitrogen or Treflan. That may not be the best way to do it, but it's the way we've been doing it for years. It's the low-tech approach.”

McKee is no longer soil-sampling on 2.5-acre grids, instead referring to Veris data to help him determine where to take samples. “Veris data doesn't show me where phosphorus and potassium are low, but it does show clay content and is affected by salt content.

“I saw from the tractor seat that when the soil was dry, Veris correlated well to what was happening in the field. And with Veris, I'm getting a point every second. I have a very dense data set. With 2.5-acre grid sampling, I'm getting great results from the soil sample, but I'm not getting many of them.”

McKee uses aerial imagery supplied by In-Time for variable-rate applications of plant growth regulator, insecticides and defoliants. “If I was doing variable-rate only for plant growth regulators, it wouldn't be worth the money. It's a good thing to be able to hammer some Pix in some rank areas, but the money saved on just Pix alone probably is not worth the setup.”

However, variable-rate applications on plant bugs and worms reduced costs about 20 percent for McKee. “In some situations, we may be able to piggyback a plant growth regulator and an insecticide.”

Variable-rate defoliation may not necessarily save money, according to McKee. “The objective is to rob Peter to pay Paul, to really stick the rank areas with defoliants.”

McKee believes yield monitors provide good information to farmers about drainage and soil type. “For me, it's a tool to quantify how drainage is hurting me in places, so I can determine whether or not I want to fix it.”

The producer is not using elevation models, residual nitrogen soil samples or late-season images to show rank growth. “All those seem to have merit to me, but they're over my head right now.”

For Arkansas crop consultant Chuck Farr, GPS and GIS can take on another meaning — Going Poor Soon or Going Insane Soon — if components of a precision agriculture system can't “talk” to each other effectively, or are too complicated.

“I want something that is easy to learn and easy to use. My experience with precision agriculture has been fun, but I've had some headaches. A lot of farmers think that precision agriculture takes too much time and trouble. How do you hook the Trimble up the Veris machine? How do you hook the Veris machine into the iPac? How do you hook all that together? Let's find an easy solution for hardware to communicate with other hardware.”

Louisiana crop consultant Harold Lambert added that his core business is still focused on pest management service. “I find myself behind the curve on the latest precision agriculture technology. On the other hand, I have too many stink bugs and plant bugs to take my eye off them. The big problem is that the value of precision agriculture is not known.”

Lambert said in his experience with soil electrical conductivity mapping and elementary yield mapping analysis, “for every dollar I have invested in the technology, I have about $1.30 in revenue. There's not enough in that margin for me.

“One problem with calculating profitability with precision ag is that the demand for the services varies from one locale to another. If you don't have the people within your current clientele to make a go of it, are you going to have to fan out and offer precision ag services to other growers? Do other growers already have a crop consultant and is that an ethical issue?”


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com