Precision agriculture technology study shows positive results in environmental benefits and farm economics
By Andrew Joseph
It’s official, the era of precision agriculture has arrived, and its technologies are helping crop farmers make significant gains, according to a study produced by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM).
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has identified the three pillars of sustainability for the agriculture industry: 1) reduced environmental impact; 2) increased productivity and yield, and; 3) a better overall economic result. Although simple enough in its statement, it doesn’t work effectively unless all three elements are met.
“For the environmental benefits of precision agriculture to take shape, farmers need to generate more yield and at least break even from a financial standpoint,” said Curt Blades, AEM Senior Vice President of Ag Services. “If a farmer is going to change a practice or invest in a new technology, the economic impact of that action has to be part of the conversation. Fortunately, we now have some rather compelling research that makes it a big part of the conversation.”
The AEM worked with the American Soybean Association, CropLife America, and the National Corn Growers Association on the study to examine how it could better-align with the three USDA sustainability pillars.
The group examined six areas of the crop farming industry where precision agriculture can impact environmentally and economically: productivity and crop yield; fertilizer use; herbicide use; fossil fuel use; water use, and; carbon emissions.
It then looked at five areas where precision agriculture can make an impact: auto guidance; machine section control; variable rate; fleet analytics (telematics), and; precision irrigation.
“Farmers are the original stewards of the land and have been doing good things for a long time. Technology now affords farmers the ability to do even more—things that could never have happened before,” Blades stated.
The AEM study determined how precision ag technologies can impact productivity, fertilizer and herbicide application, fossil fuel usage, and water use.
The study examined various crop types across the United States and determined that by utilizing precision agriculture technologies, crop farmers are successfully doing more with less.
Farmers utilizing precision agriculture technologies gained a:
• 4 percent increase in crop production
• 7 percent reduction in fertilizer usage
• 9 percent reduction in herbicide application
• 6 percent reduction in fossil fuel required
• 4 percent reduction in water use
While the environmental benefits are fantastic, so too are the economic benefits.
“That’s six percent less fuel on a tractor that is likely running 20 hours a day for a couple of weeks straight,” Blades explained. “That isn’t just real money helping the farmer save thousands of dollars in fuel expenses, but (it) has the carbon reduction benefits of taking nearly 200,000 cars off the road.”
Nick Tindall, AEM Senior Director of Regulatory Affairs and Ag Policy opined that the same applies to the use of fertilizer, herbicides, water use and crop protection: “If you’re just spraying the places that need to be sprayed, that’s good for the environment and the farmer’s net income. Fewer pounds on the ground (are) a good thing all the way around.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
While the results shown from the AME’s study are a great start, there are even more potentially impressive gains to be found via a more widespread adoption of precision agriculture technologies.
Although current adoption rates in the United States vary widely, from below 10 percent up to 60 percent, it is expected that a 90 percent adoption rate of precision agriculture technologies will provide greater benefits:
• 6 percent increase in crop production
• 14 percent reduction in fertilizer use
• 15 percent reduction in herbicide required
• 16 percent reduction in fossil fuel spent
• 21 percent reduction in water needed
That means, for example, that current precision agriculture technologies have resulted in approximately 30 million pounds (13.6 million kilograms) of herbicide applied—but with the broader adoption, another 48 million pounds (28.8 million kilograms) could be saved.
“Precision agriculture has been talked about for many years,” said Blades. “Any kind of technology adoption must have a compelling reason for the person adopting it. Precision agriculture began making serious inroads when machine guidance and auto-steer came along. Those were technologies that made it easier for farmers to see the benefits.”
Blades noted that the adoption rate of technology has seen a steady increase over the past 20 years. “Precision agriculture has become almost ubiquitous for anyone trying to derive income from their land. Most equipment today has some sort of this technology. That in and of itself leads to broader adoption.”
Tindall concurred, “Seeing the gains that are inherent with more widespread adoption isn’t just a matter of convincing more farmers to adopt P.A. technology. It is also about the continued refinement of these technologies. For instance, auto-steer has been around since the 1990s, but it is far better today than it was back then.”
Of course, the biggest obstacle to wider adoption of these new technologies Tindall noted, is that farmers must have the money to invest. As well, to utilize such tech as GPS, infrastructure in rural America must be improved.
THE TECH ADVANTAGE
While the immediate benefits of utilizing precision agriculture technology are noticeable and gratifying, Blades and Tindall agreed that it is also about evolving the U.S. agricultural industry to become even more productive, sustainable and competitive.
“It is a global market now,” Tindall said. “If today's American farmer wants to continue thriving, it's important to become more efficient. Technology plays directly into that. Precision agriculture technology that delivers both an environmental and economic benefit helps a farmer become more competitive in the international market. Plus, with a strong sustainability message, it helps a farmer maintain access to certain markets.
“Being able to leverage these technologies to sustainably and affordably provide people with quality food is a win for everybody.”
This article is featured in the September edition of the Farms.com Precision Agriculture Digital Digest – check it out here.