The precision-ag technologies available today are so solid that their payback record speaks for itself. The question now has become: How can you afford not to use precision-ag products?

Precision ag is now a mature technology. When asked what’s new in the field, I’d start with active crop-nutrient sensors. They are the Holy Grail of precision ag. Active crop-nutrient sensors make things go full circle and deliver the right amount of material in real time. Over the next three to five years, these sensors will become more active and less predictive. In other words, the prescription fertilizer mix calculated by sensors in front of the applicator will be distributed behind the applicator in the same trip.

We have three players invested in doing this well. Trimble has partnered with the GreenSeeker; Ag Leader has partnered with OptRx and Topcon has partnered with CropSpec. The payback from this technology will come not only from the technology, but also from changing management practices, and that is challenging.

Consider splitting fertilizer applications into more as-needed doses; this shifts more risk onto growers. For example, with mid- to late-season sidedressing, you need to weigh the potential benefits of more targeted nitrogen applications and related environmental benefits against the potential weather risks of not being able to enter your fields at the designated application time.

Certainly floods this summer have reminded many of us of that risk here in central Iowa.

Learning to understand

There’s still work to be done to understand how these products work across a broad range of conditions, but they could reshape the future of nutrient application. Researchers across the country are testing these sensors to help identify the payback.

Next year, we’ll see a few major releases of new displays and other hardware. We’ve already seen a few of these with the winter release of the Ag Leader Integra and the recent announcement of the Trimble CFX-750, the Deere GS3 2630 and the new line of Raven OmniRow planting control products.

Robotics technology has been around for at least 10 years. Most of the major equipment manufacturers have proven robotics technologies and some are commercially available for specialty applications like orchard spraying. Full robotics is still a ways away due to significant safety and liability issues, but continued machine function automation is definitely an industry focus.

Removing the driver is not in the foreseeable future, but automating more driver responsibilities is. For example, check out the auto-loading features of the new Claas forage harvesters.

Telematics gaining

Another technology gaining interest is telematics, which provide real-time information among machines. For larger producers with machine fleets, this technology can provide efficiency and data-quality gains.

We’re also going to see a push toward higher-accuracy GPS as more producers adopt auto-swath products and the long-term accuracy benefits of RTK.

Generally, 1,000-acre operations can cost-justify most of these precision-ag technologies available today. To make it feasible for smaller operations, look at multi-purposing; for example, using RTK across several field operations.

Variable-rate planters and auto-swath planters continue to gain interest. Today roughly 75% of large planters are purchased from the factory with hydraulic drives. This provides the hardware needed to implement variable-rate seeding and has led to an increased interest in this area. The decision process behind how to accurately create a variable-rate map is still very much producer specific.

Auto-swath planters are also becoming a norm on larger planters and provide the dual benefit of both saving seed and increasing yields. University studies have seen seed savings with these technologies range from 6% to 16%, and by not double planting in the headland areas the yield in those zones typically increases by about 10 bu./acre.

Not only are growers spreading their variable-rate technology across more field operations, but costs are dropping, too, and product lifecycles are lengthening. In 2004, an RTK auto-steer was $50,000-60,000. Today the cost is $15,000.

We have displays that are now targeted for a five-year lifecycle.

I’m a big fan of CORS (Continuously Operating Reference Stations) products. They will continue to mature and rival their radio-based RTK counterparts. CORS’ cellular-based connectivity provides some unique advantages in areas that do not have widespread availability of radio base stations. The data connectivity link in the cab provides the available hardware to directly transfer yield or application maps from the machine without having to hand off data cards.

About a third of the country has invested in CORS. In 10 years when they need a software or server update, I hope that there will be funding. Today it’s a pretty powerful quality network and the future of RTK for us.

November 2010