Scaling up precision decision-making could shrink Prairie fields

Equipment designed for large uniform fields is poorly suited to variable-rate applications to zones within a field

When Terry Aberhart scans the Prairie horizon for ways precision technology can make his family’s Saskatchewan farm more profitable, he sees something big and cumbersome blocking his view.

“One of the biggest challenges we have is the size of our equipment,” the award-winning agronomy coach and founder of the consulting firm Sure Growth Technologies said.

Aberhart, who farms 15,000 acres with his wife Lichell and his father Harvey, predicts the future of farm equipment will be smaller and more agile. What’s more, he sees a more profitable future by taking some acres out of production.

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Why it matters: Precision technology can help farmers make more efficient use of their fertilizer and pesticides, but only if they have equipment that can manoeuvre smaller field zones.

Aberhart told the audience in a breakout session during the annual event hosted by Glacier FarmMedia that the simple pursuit of economies of scale — investing in increasingly larger equipment to cover ever-expanding acreages — might have run its course in Prairie agriculture.

“The trend in agriculture equipment and practices, generally speaking, in broad-acre crops has generally been bigger, bigger and bigger,” he said in a followup interview. “But I think that’s totally going to get flipped on its head.”

Aside from the sheer cost of acquiring and maintaining all that ‘big iron,’ the development of precision agriculture technology and metrics is showing just how inefficient those systems can be, he said.

“With new technology and robotics and automation and stuff like that, we could have 10 or 12 sprayers that are 10 feet wide… and it is going to allow us to farm much more precisely,” Aberhart said.

Farmers are increasingly managing smaller zones within a field, varying the application of inputs, sowing different varieties or crops and embracing regenerative agriculture principles such as reduced tillage and intercropping.

While farms may stay the same size, or even continue to grow larger, fields will be broken up into sectors based on where mapping shows farmers will get the most response out of their input investments.

The turning point for Aberhart was when he realized through the use of profit mapping they were farming acres that were actually costing them money because they were applying inputs that produced no yield response and because the non-productive acres dragged down the field’s average yield.

After tracking the performance of one their fields over several years, they knew one field in particular was netting an average of $50 per acre but there was one section of the field that was dragging it down.

By taking one area that was not responding to inputs out of annual crop production and sowing it down to hay, they are now getting $70 to $80 per acre from the hay sold off that piece and the average returns from the remaining acres on that field have risen to $74 acre. “We’re doing less and making more,” he said.

Whereas yield maps only show the farmer the location of low-yielding areas in a field, profit maps show how much it is actually costing to farm that land.

“Do you want to pay to go to work?” he said. “We’re doing that on our farms in some cases. That’s the difference in a profit map, it helps you understand that equation and then you can decide, hey if I have to pay to go work, maybe I don’t want to go to work.”

Aberhart has also tracked the differences between flat applications and varying the rates of inputs applied in field, putting more investment into the acres that could potentially pay off, and less on the areas that are unlikely to respond.

“We are using our inputs more efficiently and in some cases we are saving money, depending on whether it’s fertilizer or variable-rate chemicals or whatnot. But we are also increasing output,” he said.

He noted farmers are often tempted to increase their nitrogen applications across the entire field in a bid to boost yields. When he tracked the performance of nitrogen applications of up to 160 pounds per acre spread across the field, he actually saw average yields decline.

He identified a $78-per-acre spread between the return on investment using variable-rate applications compared to flat-rate nitrogen applications, which adds up pretty quickly.

Aberhart said he’s changed his approach to how their farm uses precision agriculture tools. He told his audience, it’s not about perfection, it’s about doing better; incremental changes can yield big dividends.

He now follows the 80/20 rule, which says the first 20 per cent of effort delivers 80 per cent of the value.

He said he looks for the simple changes they can make before engaging in complicated and expensive changes on the farm.

“We started our precision ag journey and we tried to go to the tenth degree and figure out all the variability and it drove us crazy and it was really stressful,” he said. “It was also quite costly and cumbersome to implement and then we just started thinking there is so much simple stuff we’re missing here.

“Why are we overcomplicating it? Just look at the simplest thing, like hey, this whole 20-acre patch is losing money. Well, don’t farm it anymore. That’s a form of precision agriculture.”

That said, Aberhart said it was access to precision data that helped identify how they could make small changes on their farm that add up to big gains.

About the author

Editorial Director

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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