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FARM & RANCH: Manage Precision Ag Startup Carefully

In commercial agriculture, adoption of precision farming technologies is as inevitable as the conversion from manpower and horsepower to machinery.

The transition to mechanization took roughly a hundred years, from the Civil War into World War II. Precision agriculture — managing small areas of large fields based on intensive information collected from them — is about 10 years old, although some elements of the technology have existed much longer.

The late Max Hammond, a horticulturist at Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research Center, introduced site-specific management concepts in orchards more than 20 years ago.

Farmers have long known that there can be great variability in the productivity of large fields or orchards. Elevation, soil type, slope of the ground, history of the land’s use and other factors influence production.

But, until development of precision agriculture farmers, haven’t been able to do much about the differences. Now, computers, satellites and a variety of related technologies give farmers the opportunity to micro-manage their land and crops based on collection and management of huge amounts of information.

WSU’s Jim Durfey, who teaches precision agriculture, says the technology has made significant inroads into wheat, corn, potato, sugar beet, grape and apple production in Washington.

And he thinks the military’s decision last month to quit scrambling signals from its global positioning satellites will give precision agriculture a big boost. Until May 10th, signals were scrambled and had to be decoded. Hand-held electronic devices costing $200 could fix a location within 100 yards.

Since May 10th, the same device can fix the location within 10-15 feet.

With global positioning equipment mounted on tractors and combines, farmers now can collect yield data and relate it to specific locations within their fields or orchards. Computers allow them to analyze data and prescribe and apply fertilizer applications that vary from place to place in fields.

If it isn’t already happening somewhere, I predict it won’t be long before precision agricultural techniques will be applied to rangeland. We now have the technology to analyze biomass, even soil type and moisture by remote sensing from satellites.

This is done by measuring reflectance. Every crop, even different soil types, have a distinct spectral finger print, visible from airplanes or satellites.

This data will allow ranchers to manage their ranges for increased productivity.

Recent news stories reported that recent application of this technology enabled the International Food Policy Research Institute to estimate that 40 percent of the world’s farmland is seriously degraded.

One of the marvelous things about precision agriculture is its amazing diversity. It applies to low-value crops such as wheat as well as to high-value crops such as potatoes and grapes.

It isn’t one technology, but a family of technologies.

Without question, precision agricultural technologies are expensive. It costs several times as much for a computer-controlled sprinkler head than it does for a conventional sprinkler head.

Doug Young, a WSU agricultural economist, says producers should consider two major factors when they evaluate moving into precision technologies. Startup costs are substantial and will have to be amortized over many years. So farmers need to be thinking long-term profitability.

But, Young advises them not to let enthusiasm carry them away if long-term projections are favorable. They have to survive in the short-term or there won’t be any long-term.

The transition involves two types of risk, prices and yields.

Farmers can’t control prices, but they have to be prepared for the ups and downs of their markets and have adequate financing to handle poor prices during the transitional period.

In addition to risk of low yields due to weather or other factors, Young also cautions that new technologies require development of new or improved management skills.

Large producers may be able to lessen risks by adopting the new technology only on part of their operation, but smaller operators may have to go whole hog from the get-go.

In either case, production may not be optimal during the first years of precision farming as operators learn the new technologies.

Hope I’m not discouraging anyone from investigating precision agriculture. My goal is the opposite, but if you make the leap I want you to survive to reap the long-term benefits.

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