New tech enables farmers to micro-manage fields

Jay Bruggencate displayed an aerial map of a farm field during a presentation in Red Deer on Friday.

Jay Bruggencate displayed an aerial map of a farm field during a presentation in Red Deer on Friday.

The image was covered in blotches of light and dark green, as well as yellow, red and purple. To the trained eye, it revealed where additional soil nutrients like nitrogen could enhance production.

Variable rate technology — and the ability to apply different quantities of seed, fertilizers, fungicides and desiccant herbicides within a single field — is a tool that’s now available to farmers. The question is whether it makes economic sense to use that tool.

Bruggencate, a Lacombe agronomist with precision agriculture consulting firm FarmersEdge, and Dennis Dey, an agricultural economist from Torrington, discussed this issue during the Alberta Agricultural Economics Association’s annual conference last week.

Bruggencate described how satellite photographs, electro-conductivity maps, topography maps, soil survey maps and yield maps can be combined with a farmer’s knowledge of a field to identify unique production zones.

“The more data that you can collect to refine and identify these production zones, the more accurate map that you’re going to build and the better job that we’re going to do with the agronomics and the economics of fine-tuning those results,” he said.

Micro-managing those zones involves analyzing and interpreting the data, setting yield targets, and creating an electronic prescription map that can be downloaded into the computers of farm equipment.

Many farmers currently use global positioning systems to guide machinery in the field, noted Bruggencate. But they may not be taking advantage of the technology to collect location-specific information about their crops — such as areas of high and low yields.

There are limitations, he acknowledged. Not all combines are equipped to collect yield data, or to do so accurately or consistently. But the technology does provide an opportunity to make better agronomic decisions: applying inputs like fertilizer more precisely and effectively, reducing the lodging of crops, helping ensure plants mature more evenly, and even curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

But will it improve a farmer’s bottom line, given the cost and time of obtaining and using the technology?

“It depends,” is Dey’s standard answer.

“Basically, the reality is is that the economics are uncertain,” he said.

The characteristics of a particular field or the type of crop grown there could influence the feasibility of variable rate technology, said Dey. Even rising energy costs, which can boost the price of fertilizer, could come into play.

“Despite the uncertainty about whether this stuff pays, interestingly, farmers are still proceeding and they’re not waiting for certainty,” noted Dey.

That’s because variable rate technology is “intuitively appealing” to producers — especially the younger ones.

“It makes sense to farmers.”