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Experience aids variable-rate technology

01/11/2011 @ 1:45pm

Technology fine-tuned to soil zones is catching on like wildfire on the prairies, according to a fast-growing Canadian company of ag consultants that has just opened satellite offices in the U.S. and Russia. Farmers Edge founder and president Wade Barnes claims that variable-rate technology enabled prairie growers to reduce fertilizer inputs by several million pounds in 2010 in western Canada.

The variable-rate edge generated by Barnes’s composite of past and present field information produces a surprising result. “If you blanket a field with fertilizer, you’re going to get an average return,” Barnes says. “If you strategically place it, you’re going to get more yield.” 

Farmers Edge uses a process that includes:

  • Creating a perimeter map on individual fields.
  • Gathering data about the field including satellite imagery, aerial photos, soil maps, topography maps, and yield maps.
  • Identifying soil management zones using this data.
  • Testing soil in each of these zones.
  • Establishing yield targets for each zone.

At the end of this process, a computer map is prepared for guiding variable-rate application with a farm’s rate controller.

Five years after beginning, Farmers Edge is providing variable-rate maps at $10 per acre for close to 750,000 acres in Canada’s prairie provinces. The firm is also rapidly starting up U.S. markets like the Kansas City Farmers Edge, which opened in January. Outlets in other regions of the U.S. are being investigated. The firm is establishing consultations in Russia, Europe, and South America.

A Word Of Caution

Don Flaten, University of Manitoba soil scientist, says such variable-rate technology alone is not sufficient for driving management decisions.

“I do get concerned when people infer we can more or less farm by satellite,” Flaten explains. “There are all sorts of extraordinary challenges we face in management that require on-the-ground knowledge and personal experience from agronomists and producers alike.”

Precise information about field history, present fertility, and location is good if it is balanced with interpretation. Weather, in particular, deserves close attention.

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