“Precision Ag” is a very common term in today’s agriculture sector, but it can mean different things to different people.
New sensors, software, and shiny toys can seem like a must-buy at first, but some producers are suggesting that old-fashioned logic might be the best tool for consistent yields and steady profits.
“Right now there’s a lot of hype around a lot of technologies and most of it’s unfounded. So I’d start by saying to always use your common sense,” says Cory Willness, president of CropPro.
Willness gave a presentation called “The 10 Myths of Precision Ag” during the Farm Forum Event held recently in Saskatoon that focused on data collection, the use of that data and other practical ways to inform production decisions. The presentation had 10 key points, each dispelling a common myth backed up with a blend of photos, satellite imagery, field-testing data and some of Willness’s own opinion as a working agronomist.
One of the first points in his presentation stressed that without good basic management practices from the start, there’s no point in aiming for precision or perfection.
“It’s really important to do first things first. In other words make sure you’re managing your insects, weeds, diseases. Have a good fertility program, do a good job seeding with timely operations; those are the key things for profitability. From there precision ag can be the next step, helping you do site-specific things but it all starts with proper management.”
Looking around trade shows or even online you can find an uncountable number of new products or services aimed to help you with your “precision ag” problems and requests, but Willness says producers should be wary of anyone offering a do-it-all service.
“There are lots of different platforms out there and some of them do some things really well, and maybe don’t do other things at all. That doesn’t mean you choose based on that one limiting factor. But with the concept of “I want one platform that does everything,” you’re probably choosing one program that does a bunch of different things and none of them very well.”
Comparing it to the smartphone, he reminded producers how we have different apps that do completely different things, sometimes with none of the data crossing over. He says having different programs that do different things on the farm is completely OK, and he doesn’t recommend going for a do-it-all program.
“There’s new sensors and technologies coming out all the time, you just need to use the platform that is available and designed to do the process that you need.”
He also says that precision agriculture isn’t just buying some sensors and software and preparing for the cash to roll in. Willness suggests that producers need to think ahead and build a step-by-step plan, avoiding the ‘easy button’ solutions.
“What needs to be understood is that it’s a process. Most people want to think of it in terms of them going from a base level of what they do today, adopting “precision” and it’s going to be one huge step forward, when in reality it’s an incremental process where each step you get a little better.”
A major point of the presentation at the Farm Forum Event focused on data collection, specifically encouraging farmers to learn more about the data they’re collecting and what those sets of data are good or not good for.
“I think a lot of people have been collecting yield data for 20 years and there’s lots of tools available now, with lots of new data, but they still might not know why they’re collecting it. So that’s the point we’re trying to get across.”
He says some people may be collecting the right information but using it improperly.
“A basic example is topography versus elevation, which is actually a mistake more common than you’d think,” he said during his presentation. He made this point by directly comparing a topography map and an elevation map of the same field. He acknowledged that while the maps are quite similar in appearance, an experienced eye can see a noticeable difference.
“Topography shows you the slopes and pitch of the land with highs, mids and lows. Elevation is strictly how high a point on the ground is compared to sea level. It sounds basic but some programs can mix this up, and you can see how this would change things in a prescription dramatically. Elevation is still extremely important, but you don’t want to be looking at that factor when you need to be focusing on topography.”
To help farmers combine some of their mapping data, his company CropPro Consulting has created SWAT maps, a patented type of zoning map that combines different types of mapping data into one zone map for variable-rate applications.
“The SWAT maps essentially combine specific sets of data depending on the field, timing and application the customer is planning.”
Layers such as RTK elevation, topography features, soil organic carbon, water flow paths, and electrical conductivity can all be used to build these SWAT maps. The process to build these maps is patented and completely unique to each field and application desired by the customer.
“These (SWAT) maps aren’t designed to be the only map you need, but for variable-rate applications they are incredibly detailed and could offer insight that a satellite image might not.”
During his presentation Willness also stressed that learning more about the data you’re using can help cure any confusion created by new tech or unclear marketing terms. He says using a farm’s information correctly to make basic farming decisions will help the operation far more than simply buying a new sensor or program.
“It’s not about aiming for perfection. I don’t know if any of you were around for this year’s harvest, but there’s no way that a ‘perfect’ plan would have predicted this weather,” he said to a mix of chuckles and harvest-fuelled grumbles in the crowd.
“To me precision ag means ‘better-than-average’ farming, making good basic decisions and trying to improve on last year. Learning more about your farm, your soil and your long-term yield data can go a long way. From there, (to me) precision ag means adapting new practices like variable-rate applications or site-specific management to help with your good practices that are already in motion,” says Willness.
He finished by letting producers know that it’s completely up to each operation to decide what information they want to collect and how they plan to use it, but learning more about the information coming from the farm will help people make better decisions come planting and managing next year’s crop.
“More information is always better, it’s just a matter of learning about the data and asking ourselves why we’re collecting it.”