Can precision ag remain unique as farmer uptake grows?

The precision agriculture business is growing, but the most encouraging part is that growers are not just interested in the fancy devices such as auto-guidance, auto shutoffs and unmanned tools.

They are also interested in the boring stuff such as sampling, data and spatial analysis.

Co-ops, retailers, and providers are adding precision ag customers and acres, maybe more than they can handle. This was brought up in a recent discussion with a colleague: are we rounding off our precision?

We were discussing how much precision farming has grown, whether it be growers, acres or offered services.

An increasing number of growers are willing to try precision farming, and growers who are already doing it are adding additional acres. As well, many providers are expanding services such as soil sampling, crop scouting, equipment use, agronomic advice, mapping, support and installation.

However, customer support is an important link in this chain.

Local co-operatives, retailers and consultants have managers, agronomists, salespeople and field staff who support each individual grower. They use software to organize and analyze data, and if the grower doesn’t know how to operate the software, the support person helps and possibly does most of the work.

Each grower will have different needs, and each field will have unique qualities. The support staff uses an individual grower’s data and unique situations for a precise solution. Support people who know how to use analysis software provide precision to the grower.

They may also use management software to organize and manage interactions with the grower.

This is not analytical software. Instead, it is a new type of software that helps managers manage their field staff’s work load, helps agronomists manage a grower’s crops and helps growers manage their field activities.

Anything that the provider can do to individualize a solution to a grower increases precision.

However this software has another useful function: it allows the support staff to work with many customers and a large number of acres by using batch operations.

Batch operations allow managers and agronomists to select hundreds of customers and thousands of acres and apply the same task or solution to all of them. It is particularly useful when support people are trying to deal with hundreds of thousands of acres.

This is the question my colleague raised. He called it “rounding off the edges.”

How do we maintain the capacity to help and support a large number of growers while trying to maintain a high degree of precision to each grower? Support workers recognize that each grower and field requires a unique solution, but when we have this many acres, how do we support and provide that level of precision to each individual grower?

For example, GPS soil sampling is a major service. Farmers need fields to be soil sampled every three years or so, and it requires extreme use of technology, including the data logger for creating a field boundary and sampling grids, as well as software used by the manager to schedule and track the sampling points and results.

Providers have developed a process to be efficient and complete as many acres as possible. This allows them to sample all fields in the same way using the same grid size and the same soil tests. Is this rounding the edges?

Each field and grower are unique, so every field may not need to be sampled at the same grid size and the same tests may not need to be run on all soil samples.

Grower and agronomists must be able to communicate and decide what is best for each field. Some management software allows the user to batch process thousands of acres all at once and then individualize each field to suit the needs of individual growers.

The creation of prescriptions is another example of how we may be rounding the edges.

Agronomists use soil test results to create prescription maps for variable rate applications. Analytical software is typically used to do this automatically.

At the simplest, the prescription is created using available nutrients from the soil test results and the grower’s yield goal.

At the most difficult, it is created using an advanced formula based on 10 or more soil and nutrient factors.

Most management software will also create these prescriptions in batches of a few thousand acres at a time, but does that formula fit every individual grower?

If all growers are given the same prescription, we’ve “rounded the edges.” The whole idea of precision farming is being able to make decisions unique to small areas of the field.

So even as we celebrate that more growers are using precision farming on more acres, the increase may actually be causing us to take shortcuts that round the edges and reduce precision. The big question is, can software be used to manage a large number of acres and individualize decisions for growers?

The short answer is yes. Precision ag management software is available that allows managers to work with large numbers of growers and at the same time allows the agronomist to customize a solution for precision.

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