What is Precision farming? The answer’s involves a little bit of explaining, but stick with me and I’ll give you a rundown of the important details.

Precision farmingis an agricultural management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops.

It can be said that the practice of precision agriculture was enabled by the arrival of Global Positioning Systems and Global Navigation Satellite Systems. The farmer’s ability to locate their precise position in a field allows for the creation of maps of the spatial variability of as many conditions as can be measured. These factors can include crop yield, terrain features and topography, organic matter content, moisture levels and even details such as measurements of nitrogen, pH, EC, Mg, and K. And that’s just to name a few.

Precision farming should not be thought of as only yield mapping and variable rate application and evaluated on only one or the other. On the contrary, precision farming technologies will affect the entire production function — and by extension, the management function — of the farm. Here’s a brief overview of the components in precision farming:

• Yield Mapping– provides a crop yield by time or distance (every second or every few meters, for example). They also track other data such as distance and bushels per load, number of loads and fields.

• Prescription Mapping– refers to the process of collecting geo-referenced data on crop yield and characteristics, such as moisture content, while the crop is being harvested. Various methods, using a range of sensors, have been developed for mapping crop yields. This can be made into a prescription map for each field

• Variable Rate– The technology used to vary the amount of inputs — seed, fertilizer, pesticides or other inputs — based on site-specific information such as soil quality or plant health. Variable Rate Technology helps reduce over-planting or over-application and applies inputs in the most efficient manner. Variable Rate Technology gives planters the opportunity to change the population target rates automatically using hydraulic drives

• Boundary Mapping– A field map showing the basic features of your field, including external boundaries and internal boundaries, such as waterways or terraces

• Guidance Systems– Guidance is the process of calculating the changes in position, velocity, attitude and/or rotation rates of a moving object required to follow a certain trajectory and/or attitude profile based on information about the object’s state of motion

Records and analyses

Precision farming may produce an explosion in the amount of records available for farm management. Electronic sensors can collect a lot of data in a short period of time. It may be useful to record the rates actually put down by the application equipment, and not just what should have been put down according to a prescription map. A lot of new data is generated every year, including information of yields, weeds, and other variables. Farmers will want to keep track of the yearly data to study trends in fertility, yields, salinity and numerous other parameters.  These same farmers can look at the performance of new varieties by site specific area, measure the effect of different seeding dates or depths and show their banker the actual yields obtained and the associated risk levels.

Precision farming allows for improved economic analysis. The variability of crop yield in a field allows for the accurate assessment of risk. For example, a farmer could verify that for 70 per cent of the time, 75 per cent of the barley grown in field A will yield 50 bushels. By knowing the cost of inputs, farmers can also calculate return over cash costs for each acre. Certain parts of the field which always produce below the break-even line can then be isolated for the development of a site-specific management plan. Precision farming makes it simpler to implement meticulous tracking and tuning of production.

Where to start?

Precision farming does not happen as soon as one purchases a GPS unit or yield monitor. It occurs over time as a farmer adopts a new level of management intensity on the farm.  A farmer should identify the variance of factors within the fields that effect crop yield before a prescription map is acquired. prescription map should serve as verification data to quantify the consequences of the variation that exists in a field. The one important key source of data a farmer should not start precision farming without is an aerial photograph.