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Information Age Comes to PNW Farms

PULLMAN, Wash. — The information age is coming to Pacific Northwest farms in the form of precision agriculture.

This new approach to management carries computer technologies into farmers’ fields and gives them tools to fine-tune treatments of crop land and rangeland.

Writing for the 1998 Pacific Northwest Agricultural Situation and Outlook Report, Geoffrey Shropshire, University of Idaho biological and agricultural engineering department, says very precise information about what is going on in the field is the heart of precision farming.

By combining information from yield monitors on combines and data from the Global Positioning System farmers now can create yield maps that show how much is harvested from tiny sections of their fields.

Farmers can use this information to alter cultural practices as they move across their fields, optimizing profits and reducing negative impacts on the environment.

For instance, information from yield monitors that record data as combines harvest crops enables farmers to determine where they should increase fertilizer applications and where they should put on less fertilizer. Without precision farming, they apply the same amount everywhere, based on the average yield potential for the entire field.

But all of the soil in large fields isn’t the same and doesn’t yield the same. GPS receivers help farmers correlate different yield data with their fields.

Early adopters of precision technology have been installing yield monitors on their combines for several years. Now major machinery manufacturers are offering them as optional equipment. John Deere and Case-IH offer units installed at the factory or by the dealer. “Yield monitors are now available for potatoes, and are or soon will be available for forage crops. Expect yield monitors to be available for all major crops within a few years,” Shropshire says.

A personal computer and software are necessary to store and process collected data. Geographic Information System software allows farmers to overlay combinations of maps. “Yield maps by themselves are probably not especially useful,” Shropshire says. “Since a manager needs to know why yields vary, other types of data are needed.” Boundaries, roads, soil types, and topography all are important. “A display showing a contour map of a field against a colored yield map makes it easy to see how yield relates to elevation,” Shropshire says. “Sometimes data from multiple years is used together to see whether problem areas are growing or shrinking.”

Images taken from satellites or airplanes can be imported to a GIS. They can detect weeds, irrigation problems, or other plant stresses. Satellite images are generally of lower resolution and too expensive for individual farmers, but pictures taken from light aircraft can be very cost-effective.

Shropshire says precision farming isn’t something for farmers to jump into. “A farmer who is contemplating using precision farming should tread carefully,” he says. “Technology is changing rapidly, and hardware and software purchased today may be obsolete in a few years. However, the data gathered will always be valuable if it is accurate, reliable, and in a usable form. Plan on a learning curve.”

There also is a time lag between collecting data and changing operations. “Several years of yield data will be needed before reliable decisions can be made,” Shropshire advises.

“The next few years will be exciting for precision farming,” he says. “We’ll see more precision farming equipment that is easier to use, with lower prices and better accuracy.”

But, Shropshire predicts opposition. Some farmers will see it as just another way to separate the farmer from good management of the land. “But, precision farming is only a tool, which can be used or misused,” Shropshire says. “To quote an old Scotsman ‘There’s nothing more important on a farm than the master’s footprint’.”

The 1998 PNW Agricultural Situation and Outlook Report is the product of 44 agricultural economists and other authorities at Washington State University, Oregon State University, University of Idaho and private industry. It will be published Jan. 2 in the “Capital Press.”

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