What is Precision Agriculture?

December 2, 1998

Sharing is Caring

Over the past few decades, as larger and faster farm machines have delivered the capability to manage ever-expanding farms, farmers have for the most part continued to treat large fields as uniform elements.Attitudes have been changing in the past several years, though, and a new method of farming called precision agriculture is rapidly emerging.Based on what are called "site-specific" methods, precision agriculture involves studying and managing variations within fields that can affect crop yield.It revolves around the idea that treating a large region as a uniform area is essentially wasteful and uses an excess of costly resources in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.Any area as large as a field can contain wide spatial variations in soil types, nutrient availability, and other important factors; not taking these variations into account can result in a loss of productivity.While farm input costs continue to rise, individual farmers cannot do anything to raise the price of their crops due to the nature of the commodities market.Precision agriculture is a method of farm management that allows the farmer to produce more efficiently, thereby realizing gains through economical use of resources.An important effect of precision farming is the high environmental benefit from using chemical treatments only where and when they are necessary.This promotion of environmental stewardship is a key component of the new attitudes in agriculture.

"Site-Specific" - What Does It Mean?

Site-specific is a term that refers to treating the smallest possible area as a single element.For instance, rather than treating a whole field with herbicide because of a few isolated weed infestations, site-specific management calls for treatment of only those areas.A site is simply the smallest unit the farmer can manage with the tools available, whether that is a 100 square foot area or an individual plant.The treatment of each site is specific to the needs of each site, as determined by soil test data and crop scouting reports.The implementation of the GPS has enabled farmers to accurately map their fields and narrow down their site size to only a few meters' area.With current computing capabilities, a field could be broken up into a grid of hundreds of separately manageable units.However, depending on field size and testing budget considerations, grid squares of an acre or two are common these days.

Steps in the Precision Ag Process

Precision agriculture is a cyclic process, of course, but a farmer can get started on site-specific farming at just about any time of the year.Generally, farmers need to perform annual planning, data collection, and analyzing steps to complete the precision ag cycle.

  • Before Planting - perform soil testing, then data analysis to determine spatial variations in soil conditions that call for a variety of treatments or planting methods.
  • In the Growing Season - begin by planting with variable seeding rates across the field, and use variable rate application (VRA) of fertilizers as determined by soil test data.Crop scouting is done to search for problems such as weeds, pests, or diseases.Findings determine whether further VRA of chemical treatments or other actions are warranted.
  • During the Harvest - as the crop is harvested, a yield monitor in the combine logs geo-referenced yield data to be analyzed and mapped across the field.Variable yield results across the field can help the farmer discover if his management methods have been successful, and determine how to proceed in the next season.
Tools & Methods in Modern Agriculture

Lab Testing

Today's farmer depends on outside sources for some information, such as soil data.Testing laboratories can run soil assays for nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other nutrients.There are various methods of sample point selection available to the farmer, and a sampling grid can be obtained from a GIS.The main point is that if more samples are taken in a field, the data will be more site-specific.This provides an initial base of information for developing VRA plans.

Planting - How and What

In precision agriculture, crops are planted at variable rates as determined from prior knowledge about field conditions and soil test data.Today's planting equipment can be programmed to deliver variable seeding rates; rate changes are determined and programmed by the farmer.What is planted is also of critical importance, and the explosion in development of genetically enhanced crops offers farmers an impressive advantage in choosing hardy, high-yield varieties.

Crop Scouting

As crops grow, observations must be carefully documented about any developing problems in the field.Although crop scouting is nothing new, today's crop scouts can enter their observations into a GIS, linked to the precise location of the problem via GPS data, and the information can be analyzed by comparison to other data in the GIS.

Traditionally, knowledgeable individuals able to identify numerous problems have done crop scouting.Among the modern crop scout's field tools are the GPS receiver and a laptop computer.With the advent of video mapping, any untrained person can record field conditions to be reviewed by experts later.Other methods of identifying problems in a field include aerial or satellite remote sensing.Presently these methods can be cost-prohibitive and have a high turnaround time.Improvements in satellite data availability are necessary, but eventually this may be a commonly used source of agricultural information.

Variable Rate Chemical Application

VRT (variable rate technology) and VRA (variable rate application) refers to the development of automated variable rate sprayers, which are an extremely important tool in precision agriculture.Where the practice of whole-field application of chemicals has been replaced by site-specific treatments, sprayers capable of variable rate applications are essential.These machines are programmed to deliver precisely the right amount of chemicals necessary across a field, after input from crop scouting and analyzing the variability of field conditions.This element in the precision agricultural system is greatly responsible for lowering cost of input and decreasing environmental impact, through the automated application of the least amount of chemicals necessary.

Yield Monitors

Yield monitoring is probably the most important cornerstone of precision agriculture.The traditional method of monitoring yield by weighing harvested batches of crops is giving way to the precision agriculture method of instantaneous yield monitoring.The modern yield monitor utilizes sensors in the combine to continuously log grain flow rate during harvesting, and the combine's speed.This data, combined with the GPS location for each data point, allows the creation of a yield map within a GIS.The yield map is a visual tool farmers and crop consultants can compare to maps of soil test data, chemical application maps, and other information, resulting in a recommendation for the next year's site-specific management plan.When layered in a GIS with associated maps, a yield map displays evidence of relationships between crop yield and field condition variables.


Sharing is Caring

Geospatial Newsletters

Keep up to date with the latest geospatial trends!

Sign up

Search DM

Get Directions Magazine delivered to you
Please enter a valid email address
Please let us know that you're not a robot by using reCAPTCHA.
Sorry, there was a problem submitting your sign up request. Please try again or email editors@directionsmag.com

Thank You! We'll email you to verify your address.

In order to complete the subscription process, simply check your inbox and click on the link in the email we have just sent you. If it is not there, please check your junk mail folder.

Thank you!

It looks like you're already subscribed.

If you still experience difficulties subscribing to our newsletters, please contact us at editors@directionsmag.com