BENEFITS OF PRECISION AGRONOMY

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Benefits can be grouped in two main areas – financial and environmental.

Financial

The most obvious financial benefit is the potential savings in costs of production, although there is an argument to suggest that yields and quality of crops can be improved by more effective use of inputs. There can be costs savings on all three major inputs to crops – seeds, fertilizers and agrochemicals.

Seeds

GPS systems, with in-field triangulation, are accurate to within a few centimeters these days so, with the right machinery, seed overlaps can be made a thing of the past. This is especially important when sowing high value crops with expensive seed such as field vegetables or sugar beet. Even with ‘cheaper’ seed such as cereals or oilseed rape, as long as the individual coulters on the drill can be controlled by the on- board computer, drill overlaps can be substantially reduced, even with the drill travelling at much higher speeds than precision drills. As well as the physical distribution of the seed, the technology can also allow differential seed rates to be changed on the move to allow for the differences across a field in soil type, condition and nutrition status. This allows optimization of seed rates to allow, we hope, higher yields and less seed wastage.

Fertilizers

As more and more restrictions are placed on how much, and where, fertilisers can be applied there are good financial reasons for being precise in the distribution of these products. Not only are farmers trying to avoid wasteful use of these ever increasingly expensive materials, but they also risk losing payments and incurring fines if they do not meet their obligations under, for instance, the Single Payment Scheme’s cross- compliance regulations in the UK. The most obvious savings
can be made when spreading nitrogen, and the technology exists to adjust rates of both liquid and solid N on the move, either based on previously gathered data such as yield mapping or on- tractor monitoring of crop color or near infra- red reflection.

Sprays

Just as with fertilizer, sprays are expensive and costs of purchase, application and disposal are rising all the time. Data collected by agronomists using hand- held GPS systems can be used to target specific problems, with rates and mixtures being changed as the sprayer drives down the tramlines. Spray overlaps can be minimized by giving control to the on- board computer, rather than relying on the operator’s judgement.
There may also be savings of labour costs as field operations can be quicker with, for instance, steering guidance. Costly mistakes may also be reduced.

Environmental

A reduced risk of pollution from nitrates, phosphates and agrochemicals is fairly obvious but less inputs used more effectively means fewer road miles for delivery, less packaging production and waste and less pressure on disposal of plastics, etc. It could mean fewer passes through the field if the inputs are used more effectively, saving on fuel and reducing GHG emissions.
However, before committing oneself to the investment in the technology it is important to assess the likely benefits to the business by a cost/benefit analysis. HGCA provide a cost: benefit tool which will do this for you, but, before you start using such a tool, there are certain factors which should be considered.

Yield limiting factors (YLFs) that cannot be controlled in the field will not be affected by precision farming methods. Natural rainfall, sunlight hours, humidity, CO2 levels and air temperature are variables that cannot be altered. Soil temperature and soil texture can be affected by husbandry, but only over a long period, sometimes decades. Soil structure, drainage, acidity, inherent soil fertility, available water content and pests, diseases and weeds are all YLFs that can be managed using precision farming, although most are medium term alterations within the field. Those YLFs that can be quickly altered are factors such as temporary soil fertility, operator error, timeliness of inputs and the effect of sowing and husbandry on crop architecture. Of course, there are interactions between all, or at least most, of them.

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