Precision farming: Cultivating big farming picture

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AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. — The deepest insight Paul Mask ever gained into the value of precision farming occurred more than a generation ago, years before the term became commonplace in agriculture.

A determined and, as events later proved, farsighted central Alabama dairy producer had worked out a strategy for managing fertilizer application costs.

Using a Soil Conservation Service map, the dairyman divided all the small fields he farmed into sections and then soil tested each of them, basing his fertilizer applications on what was revealed by each test, recalls Mask, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System assistant director for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources and an Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils.

As Mask recalls, this dairyman, years ahead of time, had learned to “use mapping and soil testing to gain a clear picture of this farming operation.”

The big picture

Despite all the changes that have occurred in precision farming — despite all of the huge strides that have been posted within the last couple of decades — Mask still believes this persevering dairyman’s innovative insight still supplies the governing principle for the adoption and use of this technology.

That, as Mask sees it, is the essence — and the promise — of precision farming: using technology to gain a clear and comprehensive picture of one’s farming operations to secure the highest measure of farm efficiency and profitability by reducing input usage, insulating against risk and enhancing sustainable farming practices.

“That’s always been the challenge,” Mask said. “To me, it’s never been about adopting individual pieces of technology — rather, it’s about how the adoption of this technology leads to a change in mindset.” 

Challenges ahead

Dr. John Fulton, an Alabama Extension precision farming specialist and Auburn University associate professor of biosystems engineering who filled Mask’s shoes a decade ago, sees the next challenge as helping producers become firmly anchored to this guiding principle. 

“In the last decade we’ve made strides showing farmers how to use precision farming technologies to avoid over-application and increase efficiency,” Fulton said.

The next big challenge is helping producers acquire a comprehensive understanding of this technology and its wider uses.

“Basically, it boils down to this: How do we take all this agronomic data and process it and, by gaining knowledge from it, make more informed farming decisions?” Fulton asks. “Right now, data management is the challenge — about the biggest one we face.”

While acquiring the big picture has always been the implicit goal of precision technology adoption, Fulton said that there has been a tendency for producers to lose sight of this fact.

“For our part, I think we have done a good job helping our producers adopt the right technologies for their operations,” Fulton said. “Likewise, I think we’ve done a really good job helping them understand how they grow with this technology over time to maximize benefits.”

Systems approach

Now comes the challenge of showing producers how to integrate all of this technology seamlessly into a larger picture, he said.

“Hopefully, what we learn from all of this is that everything is interrelated and that a single farming decision doesn’t take place in a vacuum but affects the whole operation.” This systems approach to farming made possible by precision farming adoption is a skill that farmers no longer can discount, especially considering that a number of economic factors are forcing producers to expand or increase production to stay profitable. 

“Both statewide and nationwide, farmers are trying to get bigger in order to cover input costs,” said Brandon Dillard, an Alabama Extension regional agent in southeast Alabama. “This tech provides them with ability — to get bigger without a lot more people and equipment.”

Data management

Data generation and management are the bread and butter in the future of crop production, and under some licensing agreements, farmers are using this technology in exchange for allowing equipment companies open access to the farm data collected on ag machinery.

“That’s a hurdle for many producers,” Fulton said. “They don’t like the idea of turning over all their data to a company. “There’s always been a strong tradition of freedom of choice in farming. They’re not only worried about how all this data will be used but also how it will affect their control over their operations and their identities as producers.” Even so, in this highly charged global farming economy, producers have no alternative, Mask said.

He cites Brazil and other emerging agricultural powerhouses as the reason why precision farming adoption on a wide scale will be inevitable.

“Unless we learn to use every input in the most efficient way possible, we will no longer be equipped to provide products at the least cost. It’s really that simple.”

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