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What is Precision Agriculture?

By Glen Schrader,

That depends on who you ask.  And then there is the even more important question:  Is there value in Precision Agriculture?  Again, that depends.  

If you go to a farm show, odds are that each vendor will have their own definition of Precision Agriculture.  And odds are that each definition is more about selling the specific piece of equipment than the crop management that is Precision Agriculture.  

  • A tractor with GPS.  Is that Precision Agriculture?  No, but it is an essential piece of equipment needed to do Precision Agriculture.  
  • A colorful NDVI map of a crop.  Is that Precision Agriculture?  No, but is a useful piece of information that can help manage the field using Precision Agriculture.  
  • What about a sprayer where the computer can turn on and off each nozzle?  Or a precision planter?  These are all parts useful in doing Precision Agriculture but they are not Precision Agriculture.  

Precision Agriculture is also called Site-Specific Crop Management (SSCM).  The pieces of equipment, the Precision Sprayer, Precision Monitor, Precision Planter, they are all pieces of Precision Agriculture puzzle – they all help farmers better manage small or individual units of area on their farm.  Instead of managing the crop at the field level, Precision Agriculture is all about letting the farmer break the field into many small areas and manage each area separately.  

Plants like to be treated as individuals too!  

Before tractors, farmers were close to the plants they cultured.  It was second nature to adjust the care they gave, depending on how the plants were doing.  Tractors and big equipment allowed farmer to realize economies of scale.  But in doing so, many farmers stopped looking at groups of plants and only managed at the field level.  Bigger equipment led to bigger fields.  The gains from the economies of scale, outweighed the loss of precision management over small groups of plants.  

Precision Agriculture is a way to maintain the economies of scale realized by using big equipment, but using automation and technology to manage cultivation on units smaller then a field.  Generally, the smaller the unit of management, the greater the benefit to the plants.  Ideally, each plant would be managed to its own unique needs, stresses, pressures, and circumstances, as this would maximize the yield generated by each plant.  Generally, the technology does not yet allow for plant-by-plant precision, but any time the farmer can manage a progressively smaller group of plants, there is opportunity to tailor the cultivation of those plants and thus increase their yield.  

However, farmers must ensure two key points for Precision Agriculture to increase profit on their farms:

1. Precision Agriculture needs to supply the proper information so that the farmer can increase yields and / or reduce inputs
2. The increase in revenue or cost savings must be more than cost of the to pay for the Precision Agriculture systems

Done right, Precision Agriculture does add value.  But it can just as quick result in a lot of extra costs and no realized benefit.  

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