Six Simple Steps to Precision Agriculture Adoption

From Grower Magazine November 2009

Precision Agriculture, or ‘information rich farming’, is a rapidly increasing part of New Zealand crop production.   Precision Agriculture is allowing growers to be more efficient with inputs and lift their profitability while making their farming more sustainable.

Sustainable profitability is why many growers in New Zealand are adopting Precision Agriculture.   Some vocally promote it but others prefer to keep quiet about the advantages.

LandWISE is working with farmers who are making Precision Agriculture work for themselves in different ways.  A wide range of technologies are being adopted, examples being;  GPS, auto-steer, mapping systems, optical sensors and variable rate application technologies for spraying, fertiliser and planting.

Each time they master one step, a new set of opportunities appears. “I couldn’t even perceive what I might be doing with this when I started.”

It seems there is something for everyone.  If you are going to be part of this, what steps might you take?
Let’s chart a grower’s progress in adopting Precision Agriculture:

1.    Acknowledge that you have probably already started!

A principle of Precision Agriculture is to identify and manage zones.  If you are a farmer in New Zealand, you’ll already think at paddock scale, and recognise that paddocks are different to one another. You will be aware that different parts of your land perform differently.  Some areas hold less water, are ready to work sooner, warm up quicker but dry out first. Paddocks may have sandier or deeper soils or have a different aspect or weed cover. They have different cropping histories.  You probably soil test and fertilise accordingly.  If you use this knowledge to make decisions about inputs, timing or management, then you are already operating with the basics of Precision Agriculture.

2.    Get spatially aware and more precise

LandWISE farmer Tim Macfarlane is routinely using PA tools on his farm in Canterbury.   “The basic technology is simple and it lets us do things we otherwise couldn’t.  My first step towards PA was to accurately map the farm using a hired GPS unit.  I then had confidence in ordering fertiliser and seed and a sound basis for assessing yield information”.

Tim’s tractors now have GPS guidance for cultivating, planting and spraying in his mixed cropping and fresh and process vegetable operation.  We watched Tim using high accuracy auto steer to make a second planting of male plants for specialist seed production, and the final row was precisely on line.

3.    Ask yourself whether you would like to increase farm input efficiency.

Increased input efficiency means producing more for less.  Ideally, lifting yields while reducing labour, fuel, fertiliser, seed or chemicals to grow your crops.
Driving straight lines often gives the biggest immediate payback. The fatigue reduction is enough reason in itself, but the follow on advantages provide efficiency gains and the ability to do things in new ways. Some LandWISE vegetable growers using GPS to guide their cultivation and establish permanent beds are saving in excess of 50% of their fuel bill, as well as reducing labour and other inputs.
Variable Rate Technologies (applying different inputs based on variable crop requirements), show a lot of promise.   LandWISE is working with growers to determine how they can gain advantage from such tools.

4.    Understand your own farm better.

Where are your best and worst yields?  Why?
Identifying zones on your farm may support better decision making.  Google earth, aerial photographs and topographical and soil maps are a good place to start. Can you use other information to categorise these zones?  Soil maps and experience may hold clues to the causes of differences.

Electronic crop sensors are being used with GPS to plot differences in ‘colour’ across a crop.  Your eye is a sensor too.  You may start with a hand held GPS, mapping areas you know to be different.  Then you can inspect and sample your soil, crop, and weeds to better understand the zones, and your farm.

A number of LandWISE farmers have scanned paddocks using electromagnetic sensing tools (EM38) to identify soil zones. One goal is to map water holding capacity for irrigation management, a process that requires field sampling in different zones.  There is a lot still to learn, but the benefits are already apparent.

5.    Get information, Get together

Seek out neighbours who are already practicing precision agriculture and ask if you can see what they are up to. There are people at all stages of adoption across the country.  LandWISE is working with farmer groups from Pukekohe to Canterbury. Keep an eye out for a LandWISE event near you.

Dan Bloomer at LandWISE has seen how precision agriculture is making farming more interesting and fun, as well as lifting farm profit and sustainability.  “At LandWISE we get to work with a bunch of growers, who are very enthusiastic about the gains they get.  And they do this while they learn and share information.  Everyone wins.

Hugh Ritchie is sharing equipment with his contractor and his neighbours to speed their adoption and share engineering costs in arable and vegetable cropping.  “We know we want to adopt controlled traffic farming, to take better care of our soil and save costs.  Sharing the investment in technology means we can all get there faster” says Hugh.

6.    Join LandWISE

LandWISE farmers support each other to move forward and learn about Precision Agriculture.  A major Sustainable Farming Fund project, supported by FAR, HortNZ, Farmlands, Ballance, and several Regional Councils has twelve development sites in operation across New Zealand.

LandWISE has a major annual conference in May and field events during the year. We are currently establishing local precision agriculture discussion groups for members.
The LandWISE website contains information on current members, articles on precision agriculture and many resources and tools.  It is also a place to comment, chat and ask questions about where to go to learn more.

LandWISE hold field walks and Precision Agriculture discussions in Pukekohe, Gisborne, Canterbury, Hawke’s Bay and Levin.  If you share an interest in Precision Agriculture you are welcome to attend.
Visit the website to learn more, or contact James direct on 06 6504531 or 0272 757757.

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