What exactly is Precision Agriculture?

Working the Field

Working the Field

Image: vitasamb2001 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We’ve been speaking a lot about Precision Agriculture on ATETV- who is using it, how they are using it, how it is vital to the efficiency and production efforts of farmers, etc. But what is it exactly? We thought it was an interesting enough topic to delve still further into and get greater insight into this new and exciting field.

Precision Agriculture is the use of technology to understand and manage varibility in fields and crops. Emerging technologies such as remotely sensed imagery, GPS, and GIS allow farmers to survey their land and collect information to create maps that identify crop specific variables like soil nutrients, management practices, soil characteristics, past yields, level of moisture, pest infestations, etc down to the specific meter. This data helps farmers manage their fields for economic or environmental benefits. The many benefits include: reduce costs for crop inputs like fertilizer that would have been spread in areas that don’t need it and can now be placed in areas that do, better time management for the farmer and reduction of agricultural impact by targeting the use of pesticides and other chemicals. It also allows the farmer to more specifically document a history of his or her practices and results to pass on to future workers.

The field of Precision Agriculture has been around for at least 10 years but the basics of it are nothing new. Collecting data and making decisions based on that data are central principles of farming and have been around for many years. When plots of land were smaller in size, this was obviously easier. But as they grew, this no longer was possible. New tools and techniques were waiting to be discovered. Created in the mid 1960s, the Geographic Information System (GIS) was probably the first precision farming tool developed. It provided tools for analysis.

Then came several different soil testers and other instruments designed to make the techniques of farming still easier and more accurate. What remained was how to streamline all of this information and translate it to a broader, all encompassing picture of the area that could be used to further improve practices.

Along came the Global Positioning System (GPS). With enough satellites available in late 1980s and early 1990s, it was possible to use GPS receivers to determine individual location for all of this data. What that meant for the farming industry then was that farmers would now be able to analyze all that data for smaller manageable “subfields” and program a computer to position application of nutrients and seed where they are needed spatially on the land. These subfields, which are hundreds of separately manageable units, allow the farmer to make decisions that are much more efficient than on a whole field basis.

As new and emerging technologies, they will continue to be applied to a wide number of industries including agriculture. The use of pneumatic systems now allow equipment to automatically shutoff the application of seed or nutrients on areas that have already been applied, eliminating double application. The use of identification tags along with GPS will allow farmers to accurately track and manage individual animals. Optic systems will allow the identification of specific pests and the automatic application of a pesticide only on that pest, reducing costs and the use of chemicals.

Where this goes from here then is anyone’s guess. Perhaps tools will be invented that collect data and make decisions in real-time? Maybe we will utilize small field robots one day? Anything is possible. Special thanks to Terry Brase at Kirkwood Community College for his input on this topic!

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