Precision ag is often considered a tool that only applies to large, broadacre farms. But the truth is, even farms with less than 500 acres can find opportunities to capitalize on PA tools and technologies.
We spoke with precision ag experts Wes Porter, University of Georgia Associate Professor, and Bruce Erickson, Agronomy Education Distance and Outreach Director at Purdue University, to discuss how small farms can reap the benefits of precision ag.
Gather data for better decision-making
To get started with precision ag, you need to have an understanding of what you’re trying to change or improve on your farm — which is why the first step for any size operation is to gather and analyze data from every action performed.
1. Start with the soil.
Every farmer knows there are parts of their farm that don’t look as good or perform as well, says Erickson, and you can use precision ag tools like remote sensing or site-specific soil sampling to identify the cause of those issues.
Porter agrees that one of the first ways small farms can adopt precision ag is to implement a precise soil sampling strategy.
“You’re going to get better information from grid or zone sampling than you would from one composite sample that represents a whole field,” he says.
Grid sampling is the most common option, where you lay a grid on the field and create a composite sample from each of the grids to help capture variability. Porter advises using smaller grids for high-value crops and bigger grids for broadacre crops.
But if you have additional information about your fields that may correlate to production variabilities, such as yield or soil type data, you can create zones from that information for zone sampling.
2. Utilize free or low-cost tools to learn more about your fields.
Another way to gather more data about your fields is to use a free or low-cost smartphone and tablet apps, which Porter says most farmers overlook. Scouting, satellite imagery, and weather apps can all help you identify trends across your fields.
Strategically apply precision ag to solve problems
Once you’ve gathered enough data about your farm to identify inconsistencies, it’s time to evaluate where it makes sense to implement precision ag to address those issues.
3. Outsource precision ag tasks.
One reason small farms often discount precision ag as an option for their operation is the investment it can require. Larger farms can justify the investment because they have more acres to spread out the cost, says Erickson.
But you don’t have to buy the technology yourself to use it. Erickson suggests hiring out certain precision ag practices such as variable-rate spraying or fertilizer application to your ag retailer, so you can reap the benefits of the technology without having to bear the full cost.
4. Target certain acres.
Another option Porter offers is to only apply precision ag to the fields that would benefit the most from it, as this could help cut down on both the financial and time investment required.
“If we’re talking about your 400-acre farm size or smaller, it’s usually a lot of smaller fields patched around — not one 400-acre field,” he says. “Maybe out of those 400 acres, I’m going only to implement a precision ag strategy on 200 of them and focus on where I’m going to have the largest impact.
Erickson suggests targeting fields that have more variation in soils or crop responses since those often respond more to variable-rate applications.
5. Consider crop and input value.
It’s important to point out here that having a smaller acreage doesn’t mean that you can’t see significant savings from precision ag, especially if you have high-value crops or expensive inputs.
Erickson explains that historically a lot of precision ag has focused on commodity crops, where often the goal is to be a low-cost producer. The high use in broadacre crops is partially because some of the more commonly used precision ag technologies have been autoguidance and section controllers, he says, which are more about saving input expenses vs. increasing yields.
“But if you’re producing orchard crops, or vegetables or vineyards, those types of speciality crops, there could be advantages to doing some of the site-specific precision ag, as the value per acre is so much greater,” he says. “With broadacre crops, the cost savings is a big thing, but with speciality crops, it’s more the overall value you’re providing to the customer.”
In short: the higher the value of the crop you’re growing, the less acreage you need to justify the investment of precision ag, because even small input savings or improvement in crop quality may go a long way toward ROI.
Even if you’re not growing speciality crops, you may be surprised to see just how much you could save on inputs from implementing precision ag. Porter has a colleague at the University of Georgia who installed soil moisture sensors on his small farm and can’t see ever doing irrigation without them.
“He calculated how much money he’s saving on water and sees it’s paying for those systems within a year,” Porter says.
6. Look for entry-level options.
There are plenty of affordable options for small farmers who want to purchase precision ag for their farm. Porter recommends looking at entry-level technologies such as basic guidance systems and rate controllers.
“A lightbar or cheap retrofitted ‘autosteer’ will help start saving on chemicals and fertilizers, even for farms that are just using a small buggy, because it’s easy to overlap or miss some areas with manual steering,” he says. “You won’t see the same level of efficiency as you would with RTK, but for the size of your farm and investment, it could make a difference.”
He adds that you can usually move them between vehicles for even greater use.
Don’t forget about smartphone apps that may only require a time investment. For example, Porter recommends anyone doing irrigation use an app that tracks rainfall so you can create an irrigation schedule based on when you need to irrigate, rather than just doing it a certain number of times.
7. Don’t discount labour and time savings.
Sometimes the value in precision ag can’t be pencilled into hard numbers. Reduction in operator fatigue and improved work quality are two such benefits that can be hard to calculate into an ROI but have a very positive impact on farms of any size.
For instance, older farmers may want to consider autosteer because it makes it easier to continue farming and reduces the need for additional labour, Erickson says.
“It takes some of the grind out if,” he adds. “It’s not necessarily just pure money all the time.”
Precision Ag Has a Place
The one thing Porter doesn’t want small farmers to do is to sell themselves short on how precision ag can help them.
“You just have to look at your operation and see where it fits in for you,” It might be more worth your time when you’re a smaller farm because the profitability can be even harder without that volume. This may provide you with a better opportunity to become more profitable or have the best management practices.