Precision ag more than tools; it’s a way of thinking

After spending a career teaching precision farming in the U.S. Midwest, I have made the switch to west coast agriculture.

Growing up in Iowa, corn, soybeans, oats, alfalfa and pastureland were pretty much the extent of my experience in crops. There is corn as far as the eye can see in some parts of Iowa, broken only by occasional tree lines, farmstead buildings and towns.

I was ready for a change, so when West Hills College in the Central California Valley had an opening for a precision ag instructor, I jumped at it.

Now on my drive in to work I pass almond, pistachio, orange, cherry, and lemon orchards. The view includes oil rigs, irrigation pumps and mountains. Things are definitely different in California.

It’s the same with precision farming: a common phrase I’ve heard in talks with west coast growers is, “it’s different here; that precision ag stuff that you do in Midwest isn’t going to work here.”

This is partly a correct assessment. Much of the precision farming software is focused on corn and soybeans. Yield monitoring, a staple of Midwest or prairie precision ag, is limited here.

West coast growers don’t trust the rest of the country, and especially the Midwest, to understand the issues that California growers face in irrigation, salinity, and permeability. So I’ll admit there are differences with precision farming in California.

However, a favourite quote of mine is, “there is always a better way of doing something: find it.” So yes, precision farming will be different than the Midwest or Great Plains, but that isn’t a reason it can’t be done.

Many people may have a narrow definition of precision farming, which limits possibilities on how it is used.

Technology can be applied to problems in many different ways for economic and environmental benefit. So for this column, I’ve decided to reach back into my Introduction to Precision Farming class and review basic categories of how precision farming technology can be used.

This is the most basic and simplest of precision applications and is often overlooked.

The difference between regular recordkeeping and precision farming recordkeeping is that determining yield on a whole field basis, it is done on a subfield basis. Instead of determining nutrient availability on a whole field, it is done on a subfield basis. Costs, income, labour or anything that is recorded for a whole field can be recorded on a subfield basis.

The size of the subfield can vary: it could be a large grid, it could be a soil type or it could be an individual tree. No matter the size of the subfield, keeping records is necessary for detailed and objective decision making. That is applicable to the west coast as much as the Prairies or Midwest.

The face of precision farming are the sexy and high visibility things like autonomous drones, robotic tractors and hyperspectral imagery.

These toys often get the press but justifiably need to be evaluated carefully for their economic returns. They need to be applied carefully and judiciously to do more than cover their costs.

However, there can be an economic return for those growers willing to put in the time and energy. Application of sensor and control technology will be different for west coast crops, but I believe that it can be applicable and valuable in some way for any production system or crop.

The current trend in precision farming is big data, which includes data management, data mining and all things measurable.

This is the analysis and interpretation of data that has been collected from various sensors or collected from record keeping. It is about making an objective decision from data, which is a concept that is as applicable to west coast agriculture as it is anywhere.

I greatly enjoy most of my time here in California and am gaining a very different perspective of how precision farming can be applied to different crops. It’s a learning process and I’m relying on locals to learn about almonds and pistachios. Yes it is different here, but precision can happen here, too.

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

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