How precision agriculture cuts costs


Agriculture technology is 10 to 15 years into a growth spurt that is revolutionizing the efficiency of grain crop operations and especially benefitting Kentucky farmers who raise corn, soybeans and wheat on rolling, irregular landscapes where conditions can vary not only from field to field but from row to row.

Most tractors, combines and implements rolling across farmland circa 2015 are computer-controlled, Internet connected and have automated GPS-guided steering accurate down to the centimeter. On the fly, equipment accesses the farm database and self-adjusts to soil conditions while planting, harvesting or applying fertilizer and various other inputs – then updates the cloud-based network.

Watering systems can be monitored and operated remotely from a desktop computer, laptop, mobile device or smartphone. On-farm crop storage systems improve harvest logistics, then manage grain moisture content for quality and volume until contracted delivery times arrive or the grower decides the market has ripened.

Agribusiness operations all over the nation are gaining efficiency as technology improves every year. However, the geometric grain-growing grids typical in the Plains of Kansas, Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska are less challenging to manage and derive less benefit than the undulating, creek-carved fields farmed in the commonwealth.

That shapely Kentucky land might be more beautiful, but those curves create overlap and waste – 10%, 15% or more – every time machinery makes a pass in the field. Swath-control systems, however, weed out waste by very precisely avoiding overlaps of expensive seed, fertilizer, pest control or other inputs.

Swath control’s impact in the commonwealth “is astronomical compared to what it is in the Plains,” said Joe Nichols, founder and managing partner of Seven Springs Farm, one of the state’s largest operations, near Cadiz in Trigg County. “It’s returning money more quickly in Kentucky than anywhere else in the United States.”

Tim Stombaugh, a biosystems and agriculture engineer with the University of Kentucky, said Extension county agents estimate 75 to 80% of commonwealth farms have adopted swath-control strategies – even though the large-scale farm equipment necessary to do so can easily run into multiple six figures.

“Some of it is a real no-brainer,” Stombaugh said. The financial impact of swath control on operations can create a positive return on investment in the first year.

Precision agriculture, as current technology-intensive farming is called, increases production. Although the weather remains beyond man’s control and impacts harvests from year to year, USDA figures show corn yields growing significantly in the past quarter century. Annual average yields that ranged from around 100 to 130 bushels an acre in the 1990s increased to a range of 129 to 164 bushels in the 2000s, and since 2010 have ranged from 123 to 171 bushels per acre.

The trend line for average U.S. soybean yields also has risen steadily – from around 35 bushels an acre in the mid-1990s to nearly 45 bushels this year, according to USDA statistics. USDA stats also show winter wheat yields trending higher as well – for the long term – from roughly 40 bushels an acre in the mid-1990s to around 45 bushels, even though the all-time high U.S. average yield of more than 47 bushels an acre occurred in the 2000-01 season.

Precision farming’s bigger benefit today, accord to members of Kentucky’s increasingly high-tech agribusiness sector, is that ever-improving technology nearly eliminates waste of seed, fertilizer, insecticide, herbicide, crop spillage and spoilage, fuel and time.

“We don’t run a farm. We run a business … and the product is food,” said Nichols. “We use technology for everything.”

He is a very big fan of swath-control systems, which have brought dramatic savings in the cost of inputs – the seed, fertilizer or other soil augmentation, insecticide and herbicide – that are significant for 30,000-plus acres. Wheat fields get five “passes” by some form of equipment in a growing season.

“It took us from 15% overlap to 2 to 3%,” Nichols said, thus a 12-13%t savings on input costs. “Swath control has changed land values in Trigg, Christian and Caldwell counties,” he added, referencing a section considered to have some of Kentucky’s best grain crop soils. “Now you can farm it just like you would a section in central Illinois.”

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