Colorful field maps that detail yields, fertility and weed levels sure are clever. But as part of precision farming are they all show and no go?

That may have been the case in the early days, when precision farming drained pocketbooks with expensive technology purchases, giving little promise of return. But as they build extensive databases on their fields, more farmers discover that precision farming is more go than show.

“It's still in the immature stage, but we're seeing some stand-alone economic benefits from precision farming, such as diagnosing for crop production, drainage and nematode problems,” says Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer, Purdue University ag economist.

Producers particularly use yield monitors as a means to detect agronomic problems. “It's a low-tech analysis that causes you to say, ‘Hmmm, that area of the field should be doing better than it is.’”

But don't expect precision farming benefits overnight. The farmers best poised to garner precision farming benefits are those who have been collecting data for several years.

“There's no World Series home run in the bottom of the ninth inning from precision farming,” says Curtis Watson, a Renville, MN, farmer who has used precision farming technology for nine years. “But there are a lot of singles on the Little League level. Over time, picking up bits of information adds up.”

For example, Watson quit combining soybeans late at night because his yield monitor tipped him off that he lost 8 bu/acre in yields due to improper separation.

“The first time I saw that I couldn't believe I was losing that much,” he says. “But I was.”

Precision farming also works well for varying lime rates. Yield maps enabled Chuck Myers, Lyons, NE, to reduce lime applications from the normal 2 tons/acre rate in his area of northeastern Nebraska. “In some cases I've cut rates back to 1¼ tons/acre,” he says. “Too much lime can create a high pH that ties up nutrients.”

Field maps have alerted Watson where to install pattern tiling to improve drainage, too. “It's important to map fields in addition to having the yield monitor. You can then ask agronomic questions and get the answers — like we did when we put in more tile,” says Watson. “You get to be like a two-year-old and ask ‘why’ or ‘how come’ a lot.”

Precision farming also enables Watson to better record field problems on his 4,500 acres. If he sees white mold in soybeans from the cab, he records the site and scope of the infestation. Watson then reviews these findings during winter planning and can buy a white mold-resistant variety. “There's no way I could remember all that without recording it,” says Watson.

“If I want to know what's happening on a field that I didn't harvest, I can check the maps. I don't have to wonder what happened. Precision farming is a verifiable tool that gives you better information to help make better decisions,” he says.

Field maps can also be valuable negotiation tools. “We have settled seed and hail insurance claims with them,” says Watson. “We ground-truth it first by having company officials out, but we also have the findings backed up on our precision farming maps.”

Improved application accuracy is another precision-farming perk. A Purdue University survey showed that use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) by custom applicators of ground-based equipment jumped from 5% in 1999 to 44% in 2002.

“It's the future for custom applicators with ground-based equipment,” says Lowenberg-DeBoer. “We're seeing a similar growth pattern among producers.”

Eliminating gaps and laps during anhydrous ammonia application is another precision farming benefit. “Technologies like lightbars have practical application instead of just watching data go in and out and wondering what it all means,” says Mark Bernard, a New Richland, MN, crop consultant.

GPS also works better than foam markers in applying herbicides. “As equipment gets bigger, foam doesn't work as well,” says Lowenberg-DeBoer.

Hurdles still exist for precision farming, however. “The real roadblock is data analysis and making use of the information,” he says. “Software is easier to use than in the past. But it's still difficult to link up layers of information, like trying to tie together soil type with weather and certain genetics to get this kind of yield.

“We're taking the first steps in that direction,” Lowenberg-DeBoer says. “We need to develop reliable software that producers or consultants could use on a regular basis.”

Then, farmers who have extensive databases can capitalize on opportunities such as identity-preserved grains, says Tom Doerge of Pioneer Hi-Bred International. Field maps that document agronomic practices during the growing season are particularly prized by certain foreign end users.

“In the U.S., that information has had zero value until now,” says Doerge. “But overseas buyers, such as the Japanese and Koreans, want to know the history of the products they buy. When the market rewards farmers for value-added traits, identity preservation will be important.”

Watson points out that data he now collects on his fields may seem insignificant. “But look what Sam Walton did with Wal-Mart,” he explains. “He started with one store. After getting more stores and more information, he saw general patterns, such as where people shopped and where to display products. He captured the value. That's what I want to do with precision farming.”