Alabama farmers reap big savings with precision agriculture

By Jamie Creamer, College of Agriculture

 

Precision Spray TechnologyWhen Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station scientists at Auburn University began investigating precision agriculture technologies 15 years ago, a key question was at the heart of the research: Would investing in the technologies be cost-effective for Alabama farmers?

Thus far, the researchers say, the answer is a resounding yes.

John Fulton, Auburn biosystems engineering associate professor and precision ag specialist, said the approximately 60 percent of row-crop farmers across the state who have adopted precision ag technologies or site-specific management strategies on their collective 670,000-plus acres saved an estimated $10 million on crop inputs in 2009, largely by reducing overlap when applying fertilizer and pesticides.

"Farmers using guidance systems and basic precision ag technologies potentially can save anywhere from $2 to $8 per acre," Fulton said. "For farmers utilizing more advanced precision ag tools, the savings would be higher."

Though no dollar figures are available in these categories, producers who have incorporated variable-rate technology, guidance systems, automatic section control and other precision ag tools into their operations report that the efficiencies the technologies provide result in substantial savings in time and labor and help them document their field operations more effectively, Fulton said.

In addition to improving farmers' profit margins, precision agriculture also is allowing these producers to farm in more environmentally sustainable ways.

"They have reduced the overall amount of pesticides and nutrients they apply to cropland and pastures by an average of 10 percent," Fulton said. "With precision farming, inputs can be applied when and where they are needed, which can mean fewer trips across fields, and that can lessen soil compaction and the risks of erosion and chemical runoff  into surface water.

"The technology also allows farmers to document their field operations -- what they did, exactly when they did it and how much they applied," he said.

Precision agriculture is an ever-evolving approach to farming in which producers use GPS, aerial images and geographic information systems software as well as sensors installed on farm machinery to gather detailed data about how soil fertility, terrain, weed populations, crop yields and other conditions affecting crop growth vary within a given field.

Fulton said that kind of information is helping Alabama farmers develop more refined understandings of their operations' potential and limitations and make decisions that maximize their crop yields.

Two Lawrence County farmers, grain producer Don Glenn and cotton farmer Larkin Martin, were among the first growers in the state to venture into the age of precision ag when it was in its infancy, and both credit the tools of precision farming for helping them boost their productivity and profitability. They also acknowledge that the ongoing precision ag research scientists are conducting through the Alabama Precision Ag Program at Auburn and the training and technical help the Alabama Cooperative Extension System provides have been essential in advancing the technology.

"The program has provided invaluable assistance in cutting through the marketing hype to show what really works in the field," said Glenn.

Martin, who believes the practical use of precision agriculture will be essential to successful farming in the future, said that researchers' work to quantify the value of the various precision ag tools and Extension's efforts to keep Alabama farmers informed "have brought and should continue to bring real value to agriculture in Alabama."

Auburn scientists calculated the estimated savings realized through use of precision ag technologies based on the number of farmers they consult, the number of farmers enrolled in National Resources Conservation Service precision ag programs and the average savings for various technologies that have been determined through research, Fulton said.

For more information on precision farming, visit www.alabamaprecisionagonline.com.

Last Updated: Feb. 11, 2011

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