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High input costs, cheap equipment

Agriculture.com Staff 04/07/2008 @ 2:16pm

If farmers are considering incorporating precision agriculture equipment into their farm operations, now might be an ideal time to adopt the technology, according to a university report.

With the costs of crop production inputs rising and precision agriculture systems getting cheaper, equipment such as RTK (real-time kinetic) auto-steering, yield monitors and variable rate applicators may add economical value to the farm in the form of higher input savings and a greater net return.

"The primary purpose of precision agriculture technology is to improve production efficiency, boost savings with seed and fertilizer applications, and cut costs associated with labor, fuel and equipment wear and tear," says Randall Reeder, an Ohio State University Extension agricultural engineer. "In the past, it may not have always been economically feasible for farmers with medium-size operations to adopt precision agriculture, but with today’s rising costs, there may now be a place on the farm for the technology."

Reeder says the various components of a precision agriculture system each contribute to a savings for the farmer.

“Even farmers with small farms can benefit from technology provided by ag suppliers, such as variable rate fertilizer application,” Reeder says.

With an RTK auto steer system, for example, part of the savings comes from the elimination of overlaps and skips, due to the one-inch driving accuracy.

"Really how much you save depends on how sloppy you were before switching to an RTK auto-steer system," Reeder says. "With a row marker system, conservatively speaking, growers might be farming 102 acres in a 100-acre field because of the overlaps. This translates into spending two percent more in all materials, from seed to fertilizer to herbicides to labor. But with an RTK system, you eliminate guess row errors and overlaps."

Reeder refers to an RTK auto steer as the "Cadillac" of precision agriculture equipment because of its higher cost relative to light bars and other less precise guidance systems. However, growers find additional uses for the technology that help justify the costs.

"I've never heard anyone who owned RTK auto-steering say he or she would want to give it up. It's like having power steering on a pick-up truck. Once you get used to it, you can't imagine not having it," said Reeder. "Farmers are always finding ways they can benefit from the technology."

For example, an RTK auto-steer system gives farmers the ability to add automatic on and off switches to planter units, drill sections or spray boom sections.

"That results in a direct savings. An area already planted won't be replanted, an area already sprayed won't be sprayed again," says Reeder.

Yield monitors are beneficial because they can give a value to yield variations in a field that farmers otherwise could only estimate visually.

"Without yield monitors, farmers may not realize just how low their yield is in certain areas of a field, and that's costing them profits," Reeder says. "Variations in a field, from slope to soil type to drainage, can have an impact on crop production. Farmers are even discovering that their input costs on crops planted along wooded areas or tree lines are higher than the yields they are getting because of competition for nutrients and water. Precision agriculture is providing farmers with a better understanding of the dynamics between the environment and the crops."

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