Precision Agriculture: Helping Farmers Work Toward Sustainability

Do you ever find yourself wondering how we managed to get places before we had GPS?

It’s a technology that has truly transformed our daily lives. What many of us don’t realize is how heavily various sectors of our economy rely on GPS—including agriculture.

In the 1990s, precision farming made its debut on a John Deere tractor, using GPS location data from satellites to improve steering.

In short, using GPS allowed farmers to be more precise, just as it helps us find our way today on our phones or in our cars. But it turned out that GPS was just the beginning of precision farming.

Over the years, various technologies have increased the scope and capabilities of precision farming. Today, farmers use variable rate technology, computer-based applications, web-based programs, remote sensing technology, drones and data management tools.

How farmers benefit

According to Ryan Wagner, who farms in Roslyn, S.D., precision farming allows farmers to more accurately place seed, nutrients and crop protection products on their acres.

“With precision ag, we can make sure the right product gets put in the field or on the crop at the right time and at the right rate,” Wagner says.

Precision farming eliminates overlapping, which creates efficiency, reducing the amount of seed, nutrients, fuel and time used.

“On the nutrient and crop protection side, we’re not applying any more or less than is needed for the crop,” says Wagner.

How everyone benefits

Precision ag technologies improve efficiencies, save time and reduce expenses. Plus, they help farmers create a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly farming operation.

“There’s a perception out there that farmers will just throw whatever amount of crop nutrients or crop protection out there and hope that’s enough,” says Wagner.

“Instead of using a blanket rate across a field, we can change the rates throughout the field.”

“As a result, there is no excess product running off the fields into our streams to pollute the water,” says Wagner.

Because the general public may not be familiar with precision farming, they may be unaware of these environmental benefits. Farmers want people to understand that they’re being good and careful stewards of the land—and have a commitment to sustainability.

Looking Ahead

Precision ag technology continues to evolve, and with South Dakota State University’s new Precision Ag Building scheduled to break ground October 6, in-state farmers may be among the first to benefit.

“We’re using drones right now as observation tools,” Wagner says. “When the corn is 10 feet high, you can’t get a very good look at it except from the sky.”

“A drone can analyze the fields, take photos and look for trouble spots. There’s technology that actually reads the color of the crop—which allows us to do some analysis on plant health,” he says.

Some technology has been introduced but isn’t widely used yet, including drones that can fly over fields, recognize weeds and spray each weed with the right amount of the right type of weed control product.

“Robots are a little farther down the road,” says Wagner. “In the future it may be possible to have a fleet of robots doing what a large farming implement does today, actually making our equipment smaller and more versatile.”

Ultimately, precision ag allow farmers to grow more crops on less land and with a reduced environmental impact. And as the world population surges toward 9 billion, efficient food, fuel and fiber production will become more and more essential.

  • Twenty years ago, U.S. farmers were feeding an average of 85 people each. Today that number has jumped to 155.
  • Over the last 20 years, U.S. corn production grew 80 percent, while:
    • Land use decreased by 37 percent.
    • Soil loss decreased by 69 percent.
    • Energy use decreased by 37 percent.
    • Emissions per bushel decreased 30 percent.
  • Growers raise 70 percent more corn per pound of fertilizer than 35 years ago.
  • Farmers today grow five times more corn than they did in the 1930s.
  • The average yield per acre has grown from 24 bushels in 1931 to 164 today. Contest winners have averaged over 600 bushels per acre.
  • Reduced tillage prevents erosion. Its adoption in South Dakota has increased from less than five percent in 1985 to 35 percent in 2010.
  • One acre of corn removes eight tons of greenhouse gases.
  • Thanks to ongoing innovations in seed, equipment and fertilizer technology, the amount of emissions per bushel generated to produce corn fell 30 percent in the last 20 years.
  • Farmers use Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to guide equipment so overlapping doesn’t occur.

Scientists have proven that corn grown in South Dakota actually adds carbon to the soil by virtue of the unique Northern Plains climate and increased use of minimum tillage practices by farmers.

  • Over the 25 years of the study, South Dakota corn average yields have increased at a rate of 2.29 bushels per acre per year.
  • Higher yields mean more crop residue left behind. The increased amount of residue has a significant impact in building soil carbon.
  • Our cooler Northern Plains climate plays a key role in the equation due to mineralization, a process by which organic matter and humus break down in the soil. When there are cooler temperatures, the mineralization rates are lower.
  • No-tillage adoption in South Dakota has increased from less than five percent in 1985 to 35 percent in 2010. Minimum and no-tillage production means there is more residue left behind in cornfields. Those practices also mean fewer trips across a field, resulting in even greater environmental benefits.

South Dakota farmers are protecting natural resources.

  • Advances in seed science, machinery and precision farming tools help farmers grow more with simplified weed control and reduced chemical applications.
  • One acre of corn removes eight tons of harmful greenhouse gas, more than what is produced by your car annually.
  • Because of innovative fertilizer application methods and frequent soil testing, American farmers grow 87 percent more corn per ounce of fertilizer.
  • Planting cover crops and/or moving to longer crop rotations allows farmers to naturally manage soil fertility, quality, water, weeds and pests – and improve farm habitat for wildlife.

Reduced tillage conserves soil.

  • Reduced or no-till planting conserves soil and water and reduces soil erosion and fuel usage.
  • No-tillage adoption in South Dakota has increased from less than five percent in 1985 to 35 percent in 2010.
  • Reduced tillage and other farm management practices have decreased soil erosion by 37 percent in 20 years.

South Dakota farmers protect water quality.

  • Farmers work hard to protect streams, ponds, rivers, lakes and wetlands. By keeping water edges in their natural state, we help control runoff and erosion and allow water insects, animals and fish to thrive.
  • Cover cropping helps reduce soil erosion.
  • Natural vegetation “filter strips” intercept and trap pollutants and soil from fields before they reach waterways.
  • Furrow alignment reduces the amount of runoff from rain or irrigation.
  • Diversion channels send runoff to safe areas and prevent excessive erosion.
  • Buffer strips and grass waterways in ditches capture sediments or nutrients and prevent erosion.

Drain tiling in a field is similar to drainage around your home — diverting water where it is not wanted. It’s a way to manage excess water and to keep nutrients in the fields. Tiling helps with:

  • Reducing storm water runoff and downstream flooding through absorption.
  • Reducing water damage to public roads.
  • Decreasing crop loss due to drowning.
  • Increasing soil surface temperatures, which helps seeds germinate.
  • Allowing plant roots to grow deeper into the soil so they can absorb more nutrients.
  • Providing enough oxygen for plant roots to mature properly.
  • Increasing the number of days available for planting and harvesting crops.
  • Improving soil structure by avoiding soil compaction and structural damage.
  • Promoting energy-conserving farming practices such as no-till and conservation tillage.
  • Reducing loss of sediment and nutrients.
  • Allowing for more efficient use of resources.