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Experience aids variable-rate technology

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

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

“If you have precise
geographical information but don’t have a hot clue whether you’re going to have
a wet year or a dry year, it’s like you’re measuring one part of your
crop-management system with a micrometer and then chopping it off with an axe,”
Flaten says.

Experienced Interpretation Is

A soil’s ability to supply
nitrogen from organic reserves, for instance, is highly variable from area to
area and from year to year, and it needs interpretation. Therefore, a highly
variable landscape requires experienced interpretation.

Even then, an oddball
season, “Can really knock your bottom line backwards for a variable-rate
fertilization program if low areas are assumed to yield more than high areas,”
Flaten says. “In the hands of a competent agronomist and an experienced farmer,
it can be a very useful tool. My personal belief is that we’re not ready to
farm by satellite alone.”  

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