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.

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