Farming with Finesse: Insights into Precision Agriculture

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Technology can help make life easier and more efficient. Well, most of the time anyway—I hate when my cell phone GPS gives me wrong directions. Farmers have also benefited from technological innovation. Their animals and crops are jazzed about it too! Where farming and technological advances meet is often called “precision agriculture.” Ever heard of this term? If not, let’s do a little farming “tech talk.”

Previously, we’ve talked about precision agriculture or “precision ag.” The term refers to using technologies on the farm like GPS guidance for crop vehicles, drones, autonomous vehicles, and various other software advances to help farmers be more efficient.

Using these technologies can help yield better crops but can also save resources and help to produce more food with less “muscle.” Here are some more pretty cool precision ag techniques we’d like to clue you in on.

Some Serious Sensors

We’ve all come in contact with sensors in our lives, like an automatic soap dispenser in a public restroom. Did you know sensors can also monitor soil water availability, leaf temperature, insect-disease infestation and soil fertility? These sensors can aid in managing water use, pest protection and can monitor what could help/harm crops from soil content.

Many popular sensors are linked to water management. Of course, water is essential for crops to grow, so water scarcity is a serious issue for farmers. “Weedseeker” sensors help give farmers site-specific information that can be used for herbicide application.

Be a Good (Nitrogen) Role Model healthy soil in a farmer's hand

Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for the soil to help plants grow and is naturally found in the atmosphere.  The air we breathe is about 78 percent nitrogen. Yet, not all the nitrogen in the air or in the soil can be used by plants. Only two to three percent of the nitrogen in the soil is in a form that is usable by plants (inorganic nitrogen).

Thus, farmers aim to keep levels of inorganic nitrogen at optimum levels in the soil (along with other nutrients) to ensure fertility and productivity of different crops. Yet, nitrogen can be lost from the soil due to microorganisms in the soil, interaction with water in the soil and crop removal.

The nitrogen cycle follows the production and availability of inorganic and organic forms of nitrogen. Nitrogen modeling can predict the nitrogen cycle in the atmosphere, as well as in the soil. Environmental changes are getting harder to predict due to events linked to climate change. Farmers need enhanced tools to predict how much inorganic nitrogen will be available for their crops to grow.

Through using simulation models (computational programs that make predictions), farmers can check nitrogen availability and compute when nitrogen should be added to the soil or if there is too much (which can be toxic to crops).

Variable-Rate Seeding

While Variable-Rate Seeding (VRS) is not a new precision ag technique (it’s been used since the mid-1990’s), it still remains an important tool. This technique allows farmers to match up their seeding rates (seed planting) with field variability (productivity, fertility and water availability of the fields). The basic formula is that the amount of planting a farmer does relies on what the field can support in order to maximize crop yields. Along with VRS, mapping tools can be used to keep track of field characteristics over time such as yield and productivity data, soil quality, and irrigation conditions.

These are a few of the precision ag practices farmers use, and the techniques are improving every day. Technological advances help farmers use fewer resources (natural and technical) and increase productivity – big bonuses for our for our planet and our dinner (or lunch or breakfast) plate.