What Is Precision Ag?
May 20, 2020
Precision agriculture (PA) can be an intimidating topic.
High-tech terms like drones, robots, sensors, geo-mapping and big data come up when discussing precision ag. Not only are those concepts misunderstood and complex, but they all come with price tags— often large ones.
All of this complexity and expense have led to the relatively slow adoption of many precision ag practices on farms across the UK. However, in recent years, growers big and small have started tapping into its emerging potential.
In a poll of 559 people attending an online CerealsLIVE seminar in 2020, 47% believed there was a good return on investment with precision farming technology, compared to 11% who didn’t and 42% who weren’t sure – so it’s looking increasingly viable.
What is Precision Ag?
The primary goal of precision agriculture is to strive for profitability, efficiency, and sustainability on farm. This is achieved through a combination of precision technology and equipment. First, the technology technology gathers and analyses data from every action performed and helps guide both immediate and future decisions: what seed to plant in what field, or where to apply precise amount of fertiliser or pesticides.
You can then use precision equipment to put these plans into action. This might be using automatic section or variable-rate application control, or using a hands-free steering system, like the Autopilot™ Automated Steering System to precisely manoeuvre your tractor and implements. With the right farm management software, it is possible to manage complex prescriptions across a variety of fields in one platform.
The precision farming movement started in the 1990s with the introduction of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). A wide range of sensors, monitors, and controllers were also developed during that time. With the rapid introduction and adoption of mobile computing, high-speed Internet and reliable satellites, the reach and usage of precision ag has grown immensely over the past decade, so much so that it now touches almost every area of a farm operation.
Why Invest in Precision Ag?
When the hardware and software can communicate with one another, it eliminates the need to spend hours of planning—the technology manages it for you. By improving your overall efficiencies, this frees up time for family and leisure. The ripple effect of precision ag moves beyond your farm operation, giving you more than just monetary value.
But that doesn’t mean precision ag won’t help your bottom line. There are both cost and time savings to be made. Studies show that return on investment (ROI) varies depending on factors like the type and size of your farm, specific technology introduced and how the data is analysed and implemented.
However, when precision ag is introduced correctly and as part of an overall plan, it can quickly reduce labour and crop input costs, cut water usage and save you both time and headaches when planning and executing each growing season.
The most important thing to know is that precision ag is not a one-size-fits-all solution. What works for your neighbor might not make sense for you. Looking at each operation individually and implementing solutions that work for your farm is the only way to use it successfully and receive a positive ROI.
The technology ties your whole farm together, giving you the control and visibility you need to make better decisions. When you’re able to make better decisions, you know you’re getting the most out of your operation, giving peace of mind and renewed confidence.
5 Tips to Help You Succeed with Precision Agriculture
Trying to decide which technologies are right for your farm can seem like an intimidating task. However, the solutions can be simple and should make sense for your operation. If you go into precision farming with the right attitude, you can be successful and see a significant ROI.
- Start with a goal
Whenever you invest in your operation, it should be a part of an overall business plan and solve a problem which currently has no solution. Creative problem-solving is something that has been done on the farm for centuries. But now, the solution is often found with a piece of technology rather than in a shop.
- Understand the management and maintenance required
Good technology should work for you. If you’re going to spend the money on new sowing, spraying and harvest monitors, you need to calibrate the machines regularly, organise the data, ensure it’s accurate and then act on what the data tells you.
Just like any piece of farm equipment on your farm, precision technologies need to be maintained in order to maximise their full potential.
In addition, it’s important to understand how different technologies can work together to give the best results. For example, a seed monitoring system like the Field-IQ™ Crop Input Control System can be used in conjunction with a guidance display system like the GFX-750™ Display or the TMX-2050™ Display. When used together, you can accurately monitor and map fields in real-time and correct problems as they arise. You can also simplify precision ag data management by using features like Autosync™ which connect to other data sources.
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
As long you’re making precision decisions based on data and not on emotion, any mistakes should be small and learned from quickly. In fact, much precision success is accomplished through trial and error. Recognising the error and making immediate adjustments will ensure the technology accomplishes the goal of increased efficiency and productivity.
- Have a support network
Making the correct precision decisions for your farm is not easy—especially the first ones. Having solid support from a Trimble Vantage Representative can be a great help when you make the initial investment, as you evaluate your data each season and when you expand the technologies used.
- Get connected
The web is an incredibly powerful tool to find other farmers who are making similar decisions on their farm. Web platforms like YouTube and Twitter can greatly expand your support network. It’s a great idea to search for reviews and testimonials before you invest in a certain piece of technology. Farmers around the world post online reviews that offer the pros and cons of various equipment and products—which are invaluable and free.
So what are the most popular technologies available?
Guidance & Steering Systems
Some of the first and most widely used precision technologies on farms were GPS-guided combines, tractors, sprayers, and drills.
High-precision guidance and steering provide outstanding accuracy when working in the field, allowing growers to work anywhere, at any time and in all conditions, even at night.
One of the largest benefits of guidance systems is the reduction in the amount of overlap and/or skips within the field, saving both fuel and time while dramatically lowering your stress levels behind the steering wheel.
The improved accuracy in the field also ensures you’re sowing and spraying efficiently.
Looking at specific guidance systems, there are a few to choose from:
- Assisted steering systems provide a path to follow in the field, improving driving accuracy. However, you still need to control the steering wheel.
- Automated steering systems are in full control of the steering wheel, allowing the driver to take their hands off the wheel and keep an eye on the drill, sprayer or other equipment. For example, the Autopilot™ Automated Steering System can help you complete your field applications quickly and accurately. By using terrain-compensation technology, it remains highly accurate, even on difficult terrain. It can also be used with the TMX-2050™ Display, sharing data between the hardware and software and keeping them connected.
- Intelligent guidance systems provide different steering patterns depending on the shape of the field and can be used in combination with the above systems. These are extremely helpful when working on an irregularly-shaped field.
- Implement guidance systems ensure that the tractor and implement are working together, even when your hands aren’t on the wheel. Systems like these actively control the implement so you don’t have to. The implement is able to correct its position without input from the tractor and this keeps them both on the same guidance line.
Preparing land each growing season is a delicate balance between what you can and can’t control. All your best efforts can be wiped out if the weather doesn’t play ball. While precision farming doesn’t erase that volatility, it does give you more tools to successfully handle the variables.
Most precision agriculture starts with mapping and soil sampling.
Random soil sampling is the traditional approach that works best for uniform fields with little variation, while managed random sampling looks at soil from average production areas. This is recommended if you can’t identify a dominant production area on your field.
Benchmark sampling is suggested for fields with more variability (hills, dips, etc.). It reduces the variability of a field by reducing the area sampled to one which represents the majority of the field.
Another new source of data to help with land preparation is imagery from aerial field views. With infrared images of your field, you can quickly identify problems that you can’t see from the ground.
Because of the intricacies involved, teaming up with your local Trimble Vantage Representative is recommended when it comes to soil sampling, mapping and interpreting the results. While soil sampling is not an exact science, understanding the condition of your soil will help determine how to prepare your fields for a growing season.
Precision equipment is particularly valuable in strip till and fertiliser application. Guidance display systems enable you to accurately monitor and map field information in real-time, with a wide array of functionalities to suit different farming needs. Tractor, implement and row guidance steering systems minimise skips and overlaps, incorporating terrain compensation technology to maintain precision in difficult conditions.
A strong addition to any precision farming strategy is yield monitoring. Introduced in the early 1990s and working in conjunction with GPS technology, yield monitoring equipment has become a conventional practice in modern agriculture.
Information like seed varieties, moisture, grain loads and auto-cut width are gathered by the yield monitor and shown on a display in the cab. This can help the driver to make in-the-moment decisions information that might not be apparent with the naked eye.
When you take all this information and format it into a yield map, it becomes a powerful tool that can inform all your operational decisions. Combined with your cost of production and application maps, a yield map will show what areas of your farm are more profitable than others and help to bring other areas up to par. You can go one step further with farm management software that provides ‘Profit Maps’ so you can delve into each field and see what strategies are working.
Variable Rate Technology
Armed with yield monitoring data, you can unleash the power of variable rate technology (VRT). VRT is the ability to adapt parameters on a machine to apply seed, pesticides or fertiliser according to the exact variations in plant growth or soil nutrients and type.
Instead of applying a uniform amount of seed, for example, VRT allows you to apply the optimum amount in a specific area of any field — either automatically or manually from the cab. You can also avoid double coverage and eliminate wasted inputs.
VRT can be adapted to crop sprayers in either an individual nozzle or section (a set of nozzles). Drills with VRT usually have automatic controllers on individual rows. Solutions like the Field IQ™ ISOBUS Liquid control system enable you to control the amount of liquid that’s being applied, reducing input costs, and creating a high-yielding environment for your crop.
Another huge bonus is that you’ll have a complete record of all inputs used in your operation, helping future decisions.
Is VRT Worth the Investment?
Like all precision technologies, that depends on how it’s used. When used alongside soil sample data, aerial maps and yield monitoring, VRT is extremely effective at ensuring inputs are applied to your fields as effectively as possible.
While it often takes some trial and error, if you’re committed to the process, you should experience a fast ROI.
Flow & Application Control
Seed monitoring systems are especially helpful during planting; you need to know when you’re experiencing issues like skips, overlaps and failed rows. But, you can’t fix what you can’t see- and that’s where a seed monitoring system, like the Field-IQ™ Crop Input Control System, can help.
This monitors seeding information or fertiliser delivery lines in real-time. It allows you to control variable-rate application and helps you keep an eye on automatic section control. It also prevents costly sowing problems by catching them early before they impact yields. When used in conjunction with a guidance display system—like the GFX-750™ Display or the TMX-2050 Display—you can accurately monitor and map fields in real-time and correct problems as they arise.
At a single glance, you can see where fields are making money and where inputs are not paying off. Precision ag is a farm management strategy, that is best evaluated using profit maps over the long-term.
Water is a precious resource, especially in drought conditions. A precise irrigation system is one way to mitigate issues with dry weather. But when it does rain, you can’t always monitor fields in-person. That’s where precision software solutions can do the job for you.
When managing water, factors like precipitation, irrigation and soil moisture contribute to crop-available water, which in turn impacts yields. But yields are also affected by factors like topography and soil type. Visual surveys of your field can easily identify any red flags like erosion and dips where pooling occurs. Using GPS tools like WM-Survey with RTK accuracy are crucial for identifying steep slopes, humps and low spots that can affect yields.
For ground levelling, consider the VerticalPoint RTK™ Grade Control system. Other land-forming systems are only operational 75% of the time, which means fewer working hours and higher costs. But Trimble’s grade control system integrates with the Trimble® FieldLevel™ II System and gives faster, more accurate results. By using ground-breaking technology, it operates at 95% uptime in even the most challenging environments.
With it, contractors get increased uptime and a reduced number of passes needed to complete a job. And farmers can benefit from fields that have better water management and productivity.
Planning in-field drainage is also important, and hardware solutions like the FieldLevel™ II System streamline surveying, designing and levelling required for projects. It also helps ensure optimal water management and productivity.
If there’s any real magic in precision farming, it’s found in data integration.
There’s no shortage of data that growers can collect, from yield maps to soil test results and input costs. However, the real power of precision g is unleashed when all that data is combined to provide a complete story of your operation- and that can be the hardest things to get right.
5 Ways to Get Better Data Integration
The basic goal of data integration is to organise all your farm information in a way that aids analysis and decision-making.
- When you purchase any new software or hardware for your farm, make sure it’s compatible with what you’re already using. If the systems don’t work together, then you won’t get the results you’re looking for. But, if you’re using ISOBUS technology, you won’t need to worry. ISOBUS technology is the industry-standard to achieving compatibility between tractors and implements by following a ‘plug and play’ mandate. You no longer need a separate or brand-new display system for each tractor, as it allows for both display and machine to speak to each other, regardless of brand or age. ISOBUS equipment like the GFX-750™ Display or the Field-IQ™ ISOBUS Control Solutions keep you connected to every piece of software and hardware.
- Make sure you regularly calibrate and service your technology solutions just like you would with your equipment. Take the time to get to know the technology, and you’ll save time and money down the road.
- Investigate high-speed Internet options for your farm—both in your office and in the field. The benefits of having a high-speed Internet connection in the cab might be worth the investment to help with in-the-moment decisions in the field.
- Explore online data storage. USB sticks are nice backups for data, but they aren’t as effective or practical as storing it all in one place online. Online or ‘cloud’ storage space is getting cheaper and safer all the time and allows you to easily share with your accountant, farm adviser, insurer or lender. And remember—it’s your data and you have the right to know how it’s being used by your stakeholders.
- Partner up with an expert. While hardware and software solutions are becoming more compatible and easier to use, it’s still an intimidating task to get them working together. A Trimble Vantage Representative is an invaluable resource to have, especially when getting started, to make sure all your data is integrated and giving you the information needed to make the best decisions for your farm.
When it comes to accuracy, correction services are an important tool. These advanced-positioning services can be tailored to fit the accuracy level that’s right for your operation. From sub-inch to sub-metre accuracy needs, our intelligent solutions drive precision ag success.
As an example, CenterPoint RTX satellite-delivered correction services, provides high accuracy positioning of < 2.5 cm, enabling less cab time, tighter rows and straighter lines. CenterPoint RTX also provides corrections for all Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) constellations. Using these additional satellite signals, the CenterPoint RTX provides up to 40% faster RTX convergence times and more robust performance under natural obstacles like trees.
Trimble RTX correction services are repeatable pass-to-pass, season-to-season and year-to-year for achieving highly accurate positioning.
Traceability, instant weather reporting and current commodity market information are all data sets that are rapidly being addressed by the latest software solutions—with the aim of transferring this data automatically and instantaneously from the tractor or office.
A scenario in the not-too-distant future might look something like this: You’re out drilling and the weather forecast changes to much-needed rain. With this new information, you increase the fertiliser rate to take advantage of the added soil moisture. Because your cab is web-enabled, this adjustment is automatically reflected in your fertiliser order sheet, cash flow, yield projections and marketing plan. There’s no need for any extra data entry or office work — your entire operation is integrated and automated.
Increased data integration will not only help you focus on growing a crop, but growing the best possible crop. Technology, agriculture, food—these industries are always changing, and Trimble is keeping pace.
The Precision Ag Farm of the Future
Our vision is simple. It’s one where you have the right technology to solve your day-to-day problems, enhancing your farming operation and work-life balance. The ongoing integration of technology on farm allows you to turn precision ag equipment into true decision-making tools for your business. That’s the ultimate goal of precision agriculture.