Precision ag helps farmers find their best acres

Farming all the acres the same can result in potentially failing the better ones and over-investing in the worst

Implementing precision ag strategies doesn’t have to be overwhelming.

“Don’t not do something because it’s not perfect because we’re never going to get perfect,” said Terry Aberhart, owner of Sure Growth Technologies.

When Aberhart started training and educating people through his independent agronomy consulting company, he strived to teach a comprehensive understanding of precision ag techniques.

“We really got deep into the weeds and probably scared most people away from the technology,” said Aberhart during the Farm Forum Event in Saskatoon.

Aberhart has since simplified his approach by using an 80-20 rule to guide how his clients implement precision ag strategies, as well as his own approach to the technology on his 15,000 acre grain farm near Langenburg, Sask.

“What’s the 20 percent that we can initially do that’s going to give us 80 percent of the value?”

He said as long as what’s been implemented makes the farm more profitable than it was before the change, progress is being made.

“There is always going to be stuff that we don’t understand, so that’s where we really shifted our mentality and we are actually now looking at things that are really, really extremely simple; where there is a lot of value there and it’s easy to understand,” Aberhart said.

For instance, Aberhart uses precise profit maps to identify areas in the field that are losing money over the long term and then tries to take the areas out of crop production.

A 240-acre field he rents has about 40 acres with saline seeps that don’t dry up as quickly as the rest of the field, and the field is too far away to come back and seed these areas later in spring.

He said he and his family were debating whether they should keep farming the rented land.

“I had the thought we should look at the profitability of these areas over the long term. Not just one year, but we looked at it over five years. We realized in the lowest areas, in that 40 acres, we were on average losing $70 an acre over the five years farming,” Aberhart said.

The net profit on the entire field was $50 per acre including the poor area. But when the poor area was removed from the equation the rest of the field would have returned $75 per acre.

The majority of these areas were in a couple blocks, and there was already hay being cut along the creeks in the field.

He presented the data to the landlord and proposed a new agreement, which included removing the lower producing areas from their cropping arrangement.

“So we planted it (low producing areas) down to hay, and ironically the landlord informed us that she’s now getting as much or more for the hay production then she was getting for rent,” Aberhart said.

“It’s a win for her, it’s a win for us. So we probably put down 250 to 300 acres in our production on our farm in different areas like that, where we just removed our negative margin,” Aberhart said.

“Now there is a crop growing there that’s helping to remove the salts and improve the soil over time. Maybe we’ll develop some drainage options or something and be able to reclaim that land for regular production. But either way it’s a really simple example of doing less and making more.”

He said the land use change is sustainable for his farm because it became more profitable, and it’s also sustainable for the environment because fertilizer and chemical applications aren’t wasted in areas that don’t provide an economic return.

Another way to apply the 80-20 rule is to use a variable rate program to reduce inputs in the poor-performing areas that are difficult to take out of production.

“Generally speaking, especially in our area, there’s 20 to 30 percent of the fields that are in these lower producing areas. Whether it’s salinity or sand or whatever it may be,” Aberhart said.

“In lower producing areas, especially salinity in lower slopes, there is usually an accumulation of nutrients there, so we can just reduce our input of nutrients. We can save a bunch of money there.”

On some farms, saline areas have grown, especially when the fields are fertilized with flat rate applications.

“But when we reduced that input we actually started improving those areas as well. So again we’re saving money and we’re increasing the output as well. So that’s the simple 80-20 rule,” he said.

Terry Griffin of Kansas State University has studied growers’ adoption of precision ag and put an evaluation on farm data.

During The Farm Forum Event, he said one of the best-use cases for precision ag technologies is when they’re used for on-farm experiments.

“When we’re talking about data technologies, yield monitors, soil sensors, grid soil mapping, sampling and variable rate technologies, the greatest return on investment for those technologies today is if they are used collectively in a system to perform on-farm experimentation under that farmer’s management style on their farm,” Griffin said.

He said growers are often uncertain which products and crop varieties will perform best in their areas and under their management style.

To help them make these crucial decisions, growers should supplement information from plant breeders and the public sector with information generated through on-farm trials.

“Precision Ag technologies, digital ag, are the best way of getting that insight from those trials,” Griffin said.

He said growers don’t have to implement farm-scale data analysis. They can zero in on specific treatments on specific fields.

For instance, he said a 5,000-acre farm may use a few smaller 40- or 80-acre fields and try different products and methods, such as a fungicide, different rates of fertilizer or seed, and even tillage techniques to see how they compare to a check.

The grower can then use this test to see what makes sense for all of their acres.

“I think of it this way. Did that experiment help me to make a good decision? Or another way of asking it is, did this experiment help me to not make bad decisions on 5,000 acres? That return is one year, and based upon some minimum costs of conducting an experiment,” Griffin said.

However, he said growers must make sure the data from their experiments are accurate.

“We know that combine harvesters collect a lot of data. A third of it is not suitable for advanced analysis because the machine is being operated under conditions with which it wasn’t able to make an accurate measurement with the sensor,” Griffin said.

He said with yield data generated by combines, operators should try to keep a consistent speed and keep a consistent flow of material through the machine.

The United States Department of Agriculture has a yield editor that can clean up yield data by identifying when the machine is being operated under conditions in which it could not make accurate measurements.

“We can flag those observations for omissions from analysis. We are going to lose about a third of the data points, and operator behaviour can help us not have that number any higher than it already is,” Griffin said.

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