Precision agriculture is a new practice in a millennia old industry. For thousands of years farmers have fertilized and treated their soils, understood that high ground would impact hydration, and fought hard each season to get the most yield they could from their land. But they lacked much of the information that farmers today can get with the push of a button. The invention of GPS, satellites, and computers allows us to monitor crops from space, test the amount of chlorophyll in leaves, analyze the nutrient content of soil, and more. This information can then be applied to give crops more support and potentially increase yields.
But all this data alone does not guarantee a better year. The key is to focus on the right data, and to analyze it in a way that illuminates the challenges that are unique to each field. Much of today’s precision agriculture isn’t precise at all. Only by looking at the most current specifics in a flexible, focused way can farmers truly maximize the benefits big data can have for their farm.
Typical Precision Agriculture
Precision agriculture is essentially a four step process, all centered on trying to control variability. First, the field is divided into zones using GPS or satellite imagery, and soil samples are taken from each zone for nutrient and composition analysis. Soil is just one part of the equation; next, farmers also gather data about environmental factors like climate conditions, weeds, and disease. However, most of those factors are out of the control of the farmer. The informed grower can react to nature, but no one can control it. The aim of precision agriculture is to give farmers the best opportunity possible to win with the hand of cards Mother Nature deals to them.
Once the soil and field are mapped out, farmers have traditionally chosen between two strategies to maximize yield; they can try to predict the behavior of their crops, or control it. The predictive approach is based on analysis of static indicators like soil, which might give some insight into how plants will grow, while the control approach means monitoring factors like air temperature and humidity, and trying to offset their impact. Our approach has brought these two strategies together—why choose between them, when using both will maximize yield from two angles?
The Illusion of Exactness
The problem with typical precision ag is that it only gives the illusion of exactness, usually by addressing only the soil. No farmer ever went out for a drive in his tractor and felt a thump when he ran over the barrier between Zone 2 and Zone 3 of his field. The lines drawn are arbitrary when it comes to what past environmental impact has been made on the field, the field’s topography, and the seepage of nutrients from one zone to the next. Within each large zone, the grower perceives the yields as a static, single number. But rates of yield can vary widely from acre to acre inside a zone. By managing the field in large chunks only, growers can miss out on important nuances of their land.
An Unfocused Analysis
Further, once harvest comes and the season is under review, the data from the zones isn’t always used to its best capacity. Most analysts and growers simply look at the mean yield of each zone. One zone may have received a different treatment than another, but if there isn’t much difference between the average yield in the zone, analysts just move on without examining other factors. They simply see that Zone 1 yielded 200 bushels while Zone 2 yielded 203, and assume there isn’t much difference between the treatments, when the exact opposite might be true. A few acres of that zone might have responded eagerly to that treatment, while in another area it didn’t increase yield, but other treatments might have.
We’ve found that our analysis benefits from bringing other sciences into the picture. They support our understanding of why some areas yield more than others. Sometimes it’s easy to identify what mechanism might be limiting yield. Other times it’s a complex combination of factors. Most of the time, the primary elements of growth are out of our control. We can’t make the sun shine or the rain fall. What we can do is help growers manage around those environmental factors, provided we know how they impact the crops at hand. That means not just knowledge of farming, but also sciences like meteorology, plant physiology, entomology, and perhaps most importantly, soil fertility and chemistry.
The USDA maintains a database called SSURGO (Soil Survey Geographic) which contains a century’s worth of information collected about American soil. Factors like water capacity, electrical conductivity, and frequency of flooding are all documented in SSURGO for virtually every county in every state in the US. No doubt, this is a valuable place for any analyst to start their process.
Unfortunately, many analysts both begin and end with SSURGO. The USDA has an extensive classification system for soils based on their composition and ratios of sand to clay to earth. Of course, they’ve found soils in certain regions are similar; in fact, each state has a state soil. For example, the red clay earth of the American South, soils like Georgia’s Tipton, differs greatly from the dark stiff dirt of the Midwest, like Illinois’ Drummer soil. Some analysts rely on this existing body of knowledge to make their recommendations, which are not deeply customized to each specific farm.
However, it’s important to remember that not every Tipton or Drummer soil is going to be identical to the next county or even the next acre. Simply knowing how the soil is classified isn’t enough to decide how to treat it. In fact, a study performed by Advanced Agrilytics’ own Jon Fridgen showed that soil type only explained about 8% of yield variation. True, every farm analytics company collects data from the field’s specific soil before implementing strategies to improve yield. But when 2,000 acres are planted based on data from three samples, there’s bound to be details that slip through the cracks. We’ve seen neighboring fields planted within 48 hours of each other which have a yield difference of 40-50 bushels to the acre due to past management and soil composition. By focusing only on the broad picture, many miss the opportunity to adapt their precision agriculture to the exact needs of their land and crop.
The Topographic Continuum
The thing we all know about a field is, it’s a single unit of earth. There are no hard breaks in the field’s characteristics, and moving from one management zone to another isn’t like crossing some impenetrable barrier. To truly harness the power of big data on a farm, fields have to be treated as continuums, not segmented into zones. Ironically, innovators like ourselves achieve that by taking the zone approach and adapting it. We don’t divide an 80-acre field into three zones—we divide it into 3,600, and we start collecting samples.
Once the soil from each section is analyzed, a beautiful thing happens. Growers can see that the south corner needs more nitrogen, the central part may need more phosphorous, and the pH is too high to the north. They can choose more rugged hybrids for the areas where growth is predicted to be a struggle. The field can be treated holistically, without concerns that a specific fertilizer or nutrient is crossing a zone line. Swaths of soil with vastly different needs aren’t grouped together and treated the same way. With data from each small section in place, a portrait of the whole field’s need emerges.
The Hard Road
This approach is substantially more difficult than the traditional precision farming methods. The effort to understand the underlying physiological processes in the soil, and the plants which grow in it, takes a lot of coordination. We know a lot about plants and what the ideal conditions are for their growth, but once that has to be implemented in the field the chemistry is no longer so simple. Plants change in fascinating and challenging ways based on different environmental conditions, and understanding the specific conditions of your field can take two to three seasons. Also, the recommendations which come from this analysis are far less straightforward than hitting Zone A with Fertilizer A, Zone B with Fertilizer B, and so on.
Holistic precision farming isn’t a piecemeal effort. Many growers will try to implement strategies like variable rate seeding to account for variances in their soil composition—but without also treating the soil to improve its composition as needed, and understanding other environmental conditions, these tactics won’t yield the best results. The goal of our strategy is to provide each farmer the optimal yield possible on each one of their acres.
Hidden Cost Savings
While all the technology and equipment necessary to implement a comprehensive precision farming solution might give you some sticker shock, it will pay for itself faster than you think. On top of the yield improvements you’ll see within a few seasons, the resources you have to invest in will be put to better and more precise use. Pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and seed will only go where they need to go, meaning you spend less overall on each. The impact on the environment is also lessened.
Once farms exceed several thousand acres in size, our flexible approach to precision farming becomes more than an appealing way to improve yields; it’s a necessity. With fields of that scale, farming is a business, not a way of life. Not using technology to optimize their knowledge can leave big growers in the dark when something goes wrong with their crop. Putting the right fertilizer in the right amount in the right place both prevents future issues and improves the chances of a magnificent yield.
And whether we like it or not, magnificent yields are going to be critical in the coming decades. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reported in 2009 that the planet’s agricultural production will have to increase by 70% to meet projected demands in 2050. As the world’s population grows, everyone needs to eat, which means farmers have to do more with their existing resources while simultaneously inventing new solutions.
Harness the Future of Farming
Thinking of a field as a continuous landscape is in many ways a return to those millennia-old roots that the agricultural industry still draws from. When data is involved, it can be tempting to make strategies more regimented and seek out the easy-to-understand high points, rather than applying complex analysis to data. But to stick with the easy path is to sell yourself and your fields short. Rather than collecting data, feeling overwhelmed, and only pulling out a few basic numbers to gauge success, growers need an analytical partner to support them in improving the quality of their soil and the amount of their yields long-term. That takes work—but when were farmers ever afraid of that? We’re ready to dig in when you are. Just let us know.
About Advanced Agrilytics
Advanced Agrilytics is a precision agriculture consultancy headquartered in the American Midwest. We are team of scientists and agronomists dedicated to the future of generational farming. By leveraging holistic data collection and analysis process, we give growers influence over their fields and maximize the yield of their land. These long-term relationships improve their bottom line, reduce their environmental impact, and cultivate ongoing innovations in farming.
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