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From early experiments with what now would be seen as rudimentary systems for yield mapping, to global positioning system technology that allows equipment to follow prescribed paths across a field, to variable rate application that adjusts seeding, pesticide, fertilizer and plant growth regulator products on the go, to the possibility of unmanned aircraft mapping fields, site-specific agriculture has come of age.
Texas producers have not adopted GPS technology as rapidly as producers in other parts of the country, especially in the Midwest, Searcy says. “We’re still in a development stage here, although most of the research has been done and commercial advances have been made over the past 10 years.”
He says auto-guidance systems have been widely adapted but those systems may not fit a strict definition of site-specific agriculture. Auto-steer, he says, is a convenient, useful and efficient tool, but “does not address the challenge of applying appropriate levels of product to specific areas of a field.”
Site-specific agriculture, he adds, is a more comprehensive concept that involves gathering data and turning that into information to be used for decision-making, increasing efficiency and profitability. He says information comes from several sources, including field history, soil maps, and aerial imagery.
“Field history is valuable,” he says, “and should go back for several years to show trends. Each year has its own variables. Weather and man-made variables such as planting date, tillage, application timing, variety selection and other decisions, affect productivity.
“That may be why some producers are not excited about yield mapping,” he says. “Yield maps just give data. To be useful, producers have to turn it into information. To make the investment pay, they have to be curious as to why differences in yield occur. They could be related to soil differences, for instance.” He says heavier soils hold more moisture better, so may be more productive in drier years but could suffer in seasons with more than enough rainfall.
“Farmers have a lot of data to sort through. It may be especially difficult for consultants who may work with thousands of acres.”
Searcy says adoption of some site-specific agriculture technology may be slow partly because of the rapid improvements of available tools. He also believes Texas may lag behind because of the inherent risks in producing crops in a state with a fairly high chance of crop failure. “Texas producers have to deal with that possibility every year and some are reluctant to make the investment in management tools that can’t guarantee a profit.”