Small investments, big gains

Where to start with free and low-cost precision ag tools – and why

For producers looking to dip their toes into the precision agriculture pool for little cost and potentially substantial rewards, help is here.

The big advantages precision agriculture can provide are mostly well-known. In short, information is power.

Why it matters: There are some lower-cost entry points into precision agriculture for farmers who want to try it out, but don’t want to make a big investment.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure, and utilizing cost-effective data management systems together with your trusted adviser can yield many benefits,” says Steph Kowalski, agronomy lead at the Agromart Group based in Thorndale, Ont. “If you simply manage one wet corner of a farm differently based on yield data or a simple satellite imagery map that showed a red spot all season, you’ve paid for your subscription already.”

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A farm and field plan is a small investment into precision agriculture and a place to start.

“This will help you put the right product on the right field, depending on soil type, crop rotation and more, and it’s a free service we offer to our customers,” says Paul Hermans, digital effectiveness manager for Eastern Canada at Corteva Agriscience, which owns the Pioneer brand and the Encirca precision crop management system. “You can do this on a large sheet of paper if you want to or go with a computerized drawing.”

Kowalski thinks more detailed soil sampling is worth looking at.

“It doesn’t have to be 2.5 acre grids but splitting the farm by topography, yield history and/or past experience/knowledge of the farm can start the ball rolling towards managing zones differently,” she says. “We all know those parts of our farms that behave differently, but they need to be measured before they are managed.”

Variable rate planting

Variable rate planting is another small precision option that takes little time and costs nothing.

“We’ve seen gains of five to six extra bushels in 2016 and 2017 in eastern Ontario by farmers that use it, and we predict that half of corn and soybean acreage in the (United States) will be planted this way by 2020,” Hermans reports. “For customers that don’t yet have this on their planter, there’s a free Pioneer Plantability app where you put in hybrid, yield goal and so on and it will provide you with a generic planting rate for that field, so you can easily hop down and change the sprocket. Five or six bu. per acre adds up.”

Kowalski also suggests that producers ask their fertilizer retailers what’s on tap in terms of variable rate application services — no capital investment required for the grower.

“Fertilizer is one of the largest on-farm costs so if you have the ability to manipulate that, or better place it, you are ahead of where you were before,” she explains.

“Variable rating lime or phosphorus and potassium can come with big savings, not to mention the social benefit of practicing 4R Nutrient Stewardship.”

Simple satellite imagery

On equipment where GPS is enabled, the general precision ag data platforms, such as Fieldview, Encirca Pro, SMS, Agrian, and MyJohnDeere are inexpensive at about $1 per acre and have similar offerings, such as yield maps and use of satellite imagery.

“It gives you a look (at) good and bad areas of the field, and we’ve found that Encirca Pro picks up problems seven to 10 days earlier than you’d pick it up through your own observations,” says Hermans. “You can start determining what’s happening faster and make faster decisions to increase productivity.”

A problem area is detected through satellite imagery and software analysis of vegetation density differences (NDVI) and also plant height. A grower may have missed a nitrogen application and can then do a rescue treatment depending on timing, says Hermans, or detect a spider mite infestation or treat weed patches that got missed by the sprayer.

A relatively larger investment of $5,000 to $15,000 (if you already have GPS) that Hermans highly recommends is a yield monitor for the combine. He says once yield data is collected, different zones become clear and farmers can better decide how to act in those zones, whether that’s variable rate seeding or fertilizer applications or other decisions.

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