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Precision Agriculture Adoption and Trends in Western New York

Mike Stanyard, Team Leader and Field Crops & IPM Specialist
Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock & Field Crops

October 21, 2015
Precision Agriculture Adoption and Trends in Western New York

An important point to remember when reading this report is that advanced farms were specifically targeted for the interviews, and the data collected should not be considered a random sample of farms across the region. A key finding among this group was that the average age of a farmer shows no distinct correlation with the amount of technology adopted on a farm. The most important factor was a farmer's willingness to educate themselves on new ideas, regardless of age.

Western New York (WNY) is uniquely positioned in the world of agriculture with abundant natural resources spread across an incredibly variable landscape. It is this variability in geography, soil type, and climate that provides WNY with a competitive advantage for finding a return on investment from precision technologies.

This report contains the following:
  • A brief overview of the history of technology adoption in WNY.
  • An evaluation of current adoption and trends in the region regarding technology use.
  • An exploration of problems and solutions that have emerged with the technology, including a discussion of economic payback for existing and upcoming technology.
  • An outlook on technologies role in the future of agriculture in the region.
History of Technology in WNY

Equipment manufacturers started exploring technologies such as GPS steering and yield monitoring in the early to mid-1990s. In WNY, barring some early adopters, the majority of those surveyed started tinkering with these technologies in the mid to late 2000s with initial forays into planter mapping, autosteering sprayers, and yield recording combines. Depending on the chosen technology this either proved to be instantly economical, or further increased skepticism about the economic benefit. As technology progressed closer to where it is at presently, more growers began to see that the benefits outweighed the detracting factors. Ease of use increased, compatibility increased, and data management and transfer became simplified. This streamlining allowed for the technology to be used as a tool to assist farming instead of being seen as an entirely new undertaking that few had time for. Although there are still problems that were repeatedly brought up by numerous parties, the rate of adoption overall has significantly increased and looks to continue to do so. In part this is due to the awareness that WNY stands to benefit tremendously from precision technology.

Current Technology in WNY

An evaluation of more than 30 farms provided a clear picture of what an adaptive conventional grower in WNY is using on his or her farm. A majority of farms have embraced technology generally known as autosteer, where a Global Positioning System (GPS) guides the tractor straight down a row. Use of autosteer is common when a grower would like to synchronize a planter to plant directly in a strip-tilled zone or perform a similar task. Having a GPS enabled planter also allows for more precise planting operations that can respect field boundaries and planter path intersections. The most common technology used on a planter during planting is row shutoffs or clutches that would turn off rows as they intersect already planted rows or pass over field boundaries in unevenly shaped fields.

Further along in the growing season, many farms are using GPS enabled equipment to side-dress and spray. This can be complemented by precision data gathered previously including yield, soil maps, and precipitation and crop models to adjust rate in subsections of fields, although this is much less common currently in WNY.

A majority of combine harvesters in WNY have yield monitoring capabilities, while fewer choppers have monitoring capabilities, and almost no fruit and vegetable harvesting machinery has yield monitoring. This seems to be changing as accuracy increases, and newer equipment comes standard with the capabilities. Yield mapping at a precise, subfield level is a useful feedback for determining whether or not certain actions performed are providing a measurable benefit. Furthermore, yield data collected over a span of time will become more valuable (capturing wet years, dry years, etc.) as it allows for an understanding of the variability in a field while making management decisions or modeling crops. Not many combines currently utilize autosteer, but those that do benefit from the possibility to share paths between equipment, give or take, including tillage, planting, side-dressing, spraying, harvesting, and even baling.

All of the above discussion circles around equipment generating data, and a majority of this data is underutilized when comparing the average farm to front-runners using the data and technology. This is no fault of the farmers. This is a reality of being in a region where soil and weather variability makes understanding differences in fields over a landscape as complicated and time consuming as understanding a field at a precise subfield level. Fortunately, it also means that those who invest in precision technologies will be able to see a greater return economically. In the following section the most prevalent data uses found in the survey will be shared along with an economic analysis.

Economics, Problems, and Solutions

A majority of farmers surveyed agreed on the potential economic returns and benefits found when using autosteer or GPS steering enabled equipment. Accurate positioning of an implement during passes prevented overlap on all equipment, which, depending on the size of the equipment, field, and the job being performed, could provide significant savings. Savings would come from a range of efficiency improvements, not just decreased input costs, but fuel savings, more work being done in the same amount of time, decreased operator fatigue, and increased operator attentiveness to the task being performed. An example of this last point would be a planting operation where the operator was able to notice a broken disk as soon as it happened because they were watching behind them, saving significant time and lost money from a skip. One interesting caveat is that a mix of equipment that is GPS guided and not GPS guided working together in a field is likely to be just as inefficient as having all the equipment without GPS. This is because the GPS operated machine would have to be driven manually to pick up the correct edge from the other manually driven machines. A number of experienced equipment operators brought the idea up that an all or nothing approach might be best for equipment in groups.

In a planting operation, additional technology can be used to control several planting variables such as down force, population, singulation, and more. The ability to easily adjust these parameters, paired with row clutches or shutoffs also provided a majority of adopters with noticeable economic returns. Shutting off the planter as it overlapped with already planted rows or passed over field boundaries provided savings on seeds, allowed for the most efficient population at all locations instead of doubling at overlaps, and increased ease of record keeping (planting variables, varieties, dates). Similar technology being used on sprayers and fertilizing equipment can provide some of the same benefits.

Tiling operations deserve a brief mention, as many reported that tiling operations using current software and GPS guidance became more than three times as efficient when compared to the previously used highly manual systems.

Throughout the course of the survey, many farmers expect significant savings and returns to come from the previously mentioned technologies. Something that the community should stay aware of is that the above technologies are just the tip of the precision agriculture iceberg. Looking at the amount of data being generated that is already under-utilized, and forecasting the amount of data to be collected in the future by more and more technology shows that there are near endless improvements coming in the future. Utilizing this data and maximizing the benefit will be an exercise in creativity for farmers, and will require outside of the box thinking, as technology is providing whole new solutions to what previously has been seen as set in stone limiting factors. A helpful practice might be to sit down and brainstorm with an agronomist or consultant to see what types of problems can be spotted or solutions can be generated using the data that is collected.

Variable rate application of is one of the most prevalent ways farmers are trying to use the data they generate and collect. Utilizing collected data, software, and variable rate capable equipment, farms can turn soil health management and other input applications into a maintenance program for their fields. Farms that do use variable rate technology have reported success with a wide array of different variable rate applied inputs, and depending on the soil and conditions, variable rate application of most inputs shouldn't be ruled out until thoroughly researched or tested. One thing to keep in mind is that variable rate only affects the spatial positioning of nutrients and not the positioning in time of the application. The case may be that varying the rate of some input, be it seed or fertilizer, over an entire field does not immediately show a boost in yield, or even save on input costs for a particular year. But because of the long-term impact proper application rates will have on soil health, the returns may become recognizable from a field over the long term. Another thing to keep in mind is that for many inputs, especially nitrogen, economic returns will be most prevalent when the application is properly timed, as opposed to properly positioned. In WNY increased adoption of variable rate application, more precise soil, weather, and yield data will have a much greater impact on bottom lines than agriculturally active areas with less variability in soil type, geography, and climate.

A final issue that was repeated over and over was the need for qualified service and support for all of the above-mentioned agricultural technology. Machinery dealerships all expressed a desire for more employees that had relevant training or technical experience. Almost everyone surveyed including farmers, dealers, consultants, and business owners expressed the growing need for anyone working in agriculture to have an expanded understanding of computers, GPS, data management, and emerging technology applications. Some already existing solutions to these needs are dealership offered classes or review sessions, but many thought that local community colleges or other educational bodies could provide noticeable benefits to the community by either introducing courses related to agricultural technology or offering night classes to educate the local workforce.

Future of Technology in WNY

The future of agricultural technology is difficult to predict as both the hardware and software is rapidly evolving, and each advancement could have an unpredictably large or small impact. What some farmers might not be using for a couple of years, other early adopters will be using next season. What is likely to be common place in the immediate future is that variable rate applications will become the norm, with the spreading or spraying of inputs seen as maintenance programs for keeping the soil health up to par and eliminating variation within a field. As scouting data increases in both quantity and quality using both traditional methods and unmanned aerial systems, tracking of pests, diseases, weeds, and nutritional deficiencies can be coupled with precise and preemptive spraying and prevention practices. This will require increased connectivity between machinery and farmers computers and between farms and other farms or consultants, all of which will require reliable internet connections, new software training, and farmers paying careful attention to data privacy.

As the precision of the data recorded for fields increases via more accurate yield, soil, elevation, nutrient levels, pH, and precipitation maps, precision agriculture technologies can be used to leverage even greater economic returns. An example is advanced planters, capable of switching seed variety, vary down force, population, or fertilizer rate dependent on variables such as soil type or others will produce more consistent yields across inconsistent fields. Soil nutrient and plant modeling software, coupled with weather data, and supplemented by aerial surveying methods, location aware scouting, and tissue sampling, will make nutrient adjustments as close to automatic as possible. Fruits and vegetables will likely follow field crops when it comes to increased data collection and increased precision of that data as more and more operations are mechanized at cost effective price points.

A final note about the future of agriculture shows a bright outlook for WNY. Many young people who were previously uninterested in coming back to family farms have had their interested piqued by the rapid and exciting evolution of agricultural technologies, ensuring a healthy future for farming in New York State and WNY.

 1.  Conventional meaning not organic production. Utilizing genetically engineered seeds, sprays, and seed coatings to maximize efficiency.


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