Education key to making precision happen on farms

The name of this column is Precision Happens, but I’ll suggest that precision doesn’t just happen, even though I came up with the name.

It takes many things coming together to practice precision agriculture. Some people try to do precision but end up doing fuzziness and producing confusion.

I’m not going to pretend that I know everything about precision farming, but I would like to offer some insight on how precision happens. I think there are several topics that are important to precision agriculture and I plan to cover them in this new column.

Education and precision agriculture go hand in glove.

Precision happens when people know how to use technology correctly, and education is a key component in making that happen. Too many people still don’t fully understand the technology, the use of software or the value of precision.

In the early years of precision agriculture, a major company marketed an advanced software and integrated precision farming hardware system. It was a top-notch system and one that some people still use.

However, the company pulled out of the agriculture sector after less than 10 years on the market, not because the system didn’t work but because the support and education for the user was missing. Few growers could make full use of it, and there were not enough employable people with the skills to support the software and hardware.

Opportunities at colleges for people to learn more about precision farming technology are still limited. A continuum of education is needed in precision agriculture from high school to technical colleges and community college to the universities and finally the incumbent worker.

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Technology has a steep learning curve, and a few precision agriculture classes are not enough. The educational continuum is still missing computer skills, fundamental agronomic knowledge and especially critical thinking skills.

Precision happens when the technology shows itself to be useful and economically feasible. The technology won’t be sustainable and nobody will use it if it does not have a clear economic benefit, improve the comfort, life or labour of the user or provide environmental benefits.

There are examples of precision technology that were more slowly adopted or did not catch on right away.

Yield monitoring was adopted because most farmers could understand the value of seeing high and low yields. However, the economic value was questionable, so it wasn’t adopted as fast as guidance technology.

Guidance systems were adopted quickly because there was a clear value to the comfort and labour of the grower.

This is something I have taught students for many years, but I’m eating my words now with the popularity and adoption of unmanned aerial systems. Even though it will most likely prove to be a benefit to growers someday, adoption is speeding ahead without hard evidence of those benefits.

Obstacles to the grower include software that isn’t intuitive and difficult to use, hardware that doesn’t perform as advertised and support that is difficult to access. Producers either fight through it, intent on using it for an eventual benefit, or buy something else that is more usable. It is often left in the box and ends up as wasted money and time.

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Precision happens when the technology’s value is within reach of the grower. I am not going to review specific equipment in future columns.

Instead, I will provide examples of how technology is used to make precision happen.

Precision happens only when the technology works right. The size of a column doesn’t allow me to go into extreme detail on technical issues, but I hope to include columns that discuss both hardware and software problems. More than the problems themselves, the process for troubleshooting hopefully will be a common topic.

I would like to encourage suggestions and questions. If these are topics that you are also concerned with, please feel free to share your ideas.

The bottom line is that the grower is not out there alone. It takes a lot of people to make precision happen.

Terry A. Brase is an educational consultant, former precision agriculture educator and author. BrASE LLC. Contact him at precision.happens@producer.com

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  • ed

    With the average age of Western Canadian grain farmers at 60 and rising, it will definitely take some education. Anything that took any extra time got ditched this year. I didn’t use precision ag. in my garden and it turned out just fine again. No addition expense is the key, and my equipment is never obsolete.

  • Wayne

    I am an optimist regarding this topic. Yes, education is the key, but also bundling precision farming with other farming solutions will help farmers get more value and increase adoption rate of all farming solutions. There are some very interesting startups working on this, like Agrivi – I saw their live presentation recently in Italy and I was really fascinated.

  • ray

    just look at the savings with a not to handle gps savings on applying nh3.
    Along with rate regulation and back 10 years ago guys were saying they were saving 4-6 tons on 3000 acres.
    Back then it wasn’t a huge cost,now that system saves huge dollars.
    Now we get into planting,if you can save overlap on 3000 acres,50% of that canola its huge,throw in the segmented rates its even bigger.
    Now we get into combine efficiency.
    GPS on a combine keeps that unit at max,why have 36ft header if you only use 32,so if you can cut 35 1/2 either swathing or combing does that not mean less fuel overall.
    Throw in the yield report off of the combine and you can certainly save come fertilizer time.
    But it takes educating and time to figure it out and a few dollars

  • ed

    I am optimistic as well. I believe that some day this stuff will actually work. So far that looks as likely as setting up colonies on the moon. That process is probably 30 to 40 years ahead of precision ag. so stay tuned, but don’t hold your breath. Many large farmers have given this stuff a very good try over many years, said it was a waste of time and money, and retired with less money and lots of junk in boxes on the auction rack. To sell that they had to bundle it with some used cultivator shovels, tires and bolts.

  • Rodger Meyer

    Too much cost for a young farmer to make it. As long as someone else is setting the price for the crops the young farmer doesn’t have a chance. Even with Precision Ag. I have farmed all my life and at age 62, I would not be able to start farming at age 25 now days. I have 9 years post education a degree in Diesel Mechanics, Farm management and Production, Agronomy and Geographic Information Systems Technology, I am a Certified Crop Advisor and Certified Commercial Pesticide Applicator.

  • Rodger Meyer

    Information over load. stick with the basics. ph. level, good seed, right population, right amount of nutrients and hope it rains or you irrigate. It’s all in the timing and when you forward market your crop at a profit which is hard to do now days. $3.40 corn is not at a profit even with Precision Ag.