The popular image of agriculture is the farmer standing out in his field with his bib overalls, straw hat, a rusty old tractor and a piece of wheat straw popped in his mouth at a rakish angle.
Modern agriculture, however, is more “Star Wars” than “Grapes of Wrath.”
Just like all other areas of modern culture that have fallen sway to the inexorable march of technology, so too agriculture has kept pace with cutting-edge applications that have helped boost productivity and efficacy – while allowing producers to become better stewards of the environment while saving themselves money.
Precision agriculture is the word of the day.
Precision agriculture is being driven by two forces – as the price of agricultural inputs has skyrocketed, the days of being able to simply “apply when in doubt” have long passed. The ability to purchase and apply exactly the right amount of herbicide, fungicide, fertilizer, etc., helps producers spend their money efficiently.
This also prevents producers from causing long-term damage to their fields, adjacent surface water, groundwater supplies and the environment as a whole.
Steve Compton of Circle C Farms in Scott City has been an early adopter of these time- and money-saving techniques and technologies.
“It’s just part of being responsible,” Compton said. “Not only as someone who is producing for the rest of the country, but also as a steward of the environment.”
In the past, traditional agronomy would dictate that you pull one or two samples per field and then make application recommendations off of the test results of that soil. Precision agriculture takes a much closer look at a larger area.
The grid sampling system allows a producer to apply inputs only where needed. That portion of the field that doesn’t need inputs doesn’t receive any.
“All of our land is gridded on 2.5-acre grids,” Compton said. “That means you go out in that 2.5-acre square, you pull 10 soil samples, mix that together.”
Those samples are then analyzed at the laboratory, which reports each of the individual nutrient levels from that piece of land. The data are then imported into software that allows the different nutrient levels to be laid over an image of the field. The resulting map resembles an infrared photo.
This allows producers to get a much more accurate look at what nutrients the soil lacks, or already has reserves of.
“The variability you see from quarter to quarter is astounding,” Compton said. “You’re going to find the soil variability being affected by how it was farmed in the past, what was planted, etc.”
Compton said he understands that a lot of producers are reluctant to adopt the technology. The initial investment can be daunting – after all, when a modern piece of equipment can cost over $100,000, the decision to upgrade doesn’t come lightly.
“It is pricey,” he said.
However, Compton said that the investment does pay for itself.
Traditionally, Circle C Farms would put down a 15- to 20-gallon blanket of top-dress fertilizer on dryland wheat fields. The first year they grid sampled, Compton said he discovered they only needed to be using half of what they had been applying.
“When you cut your fertilizer consumption in two across several thousand acres of wheat, that’s pretty substantial,” he said.
Compton was quick to point out that savings of that magnitude are not guaranteed.
“I’m not going to tell you that’s the case all the time,” he said. “It could be that you find out you haven’t been putting on enough.”
The point is, Compton said, that the ability of precision agriculture to pinpoint that ideal area of not too much and not too little is where the investment pays off.
Not only that, it ensures that modern and future producers will be able to help meet an increasing demand for safe and reliable food while taking good care of the environment.
As such, Compton expressed optimism that an increasing number of producers were beginning to adopt the technology, particularly in drought-stricken areas.
“After all,” he said, “Aren’t we supposed to be responsible stewards of the environment?”