It’s no secret that agriculture has always been, continues to be and will be into the foreseeable future a challenging way to make a living. The risks are numerous and the stakes are high. The line between profit and loss is typically razor-thin.

But technology can take at least some of the guesswork out of the process, says a Wharton County, Texas, cotton and grain farmer.

“Agriculture has come a long way,” said Michael Popp, speaking at the Texas Plant Protection Association annual conference. “And it continues to advance. Precision farming now offers us an opportunity to monitor inputs and field conditions and maximize efficiency and profitability.”

Popp says farmers may face a significant learning curve and will need more than a modicum of patience to take advantage of precision ag technology. “We need to accumulate a lot of yield history,” he said. “Some of that takes years to develop. The process can be overwhelming.”

Computer technology is a key to precision ag and can also pose significant challenges, he added. “The equipment may be intimidating, but farmers need to adopt long-term thinking about where they want to go and how they want to get there.”

Global Positioning System technology provides a vehicle to help and is essential.

Requirements to get started include yield monitors, crop histories and quantified yields, all of which help farmers justify decisions. “Variable rate equipment is crucial,” he said.

Some old-fashioned tools are also vital. Soil sampling, for instance, plays a role in analyzing input needs. Popp said creating a soil profile, yield and soil maps, grid sampling and aerial imagery all provide information necessary for adopting variable rate application techniques.

“Producers will need computer support,” he added. “We experience software glitches and we need to learn to use the equipment.” That may require a computer technician to shorten the learning curve.

Yield maps

Yield maps “show variability and where producers can utilize inputs to maximize profits.”

Soil profile maps show where nutrients, compaction and other soil characteristics throughout the field. Satellite imagery also helps gauge productivity. “Satellite images are taken during peak crop growth periods,” Popp said. “Imagery measures biomass; high biomass equals higher yield potential. It’s a good tool to use to jump start grid sampling and variable rate fertilizer application.”

Producers should use yield histories, yield maps and satellite imagery to identify “consistent management zones—areas where yields are consistently high or consistently low. Farmers should spend time on the consistent areas, not the random ones they can’t control.”

With enough data, farmers can begin managing those zones based on yield potential. “Zones with high potential get more inputs; zones with low potential get less. Typically, we over-fertilize low yield zones and under-fertilize those with high production potential.”

Popp said fertilizer is rarely the limiting factor in crop yields. Before increased fertility will help low-potential zones, producers must fix the underlying problems. Those could include low pH, compaction or erosion, among other possibilities.

He recommends farmers plant “test strips to verify productivity. And document everything.”

Potential to improve efficiency and increase profit potential with variable rate technology is significant. But farmers face some serious challenges to make it work. “Time is a factor,” he said. “It takes time to create maps and develop prescriptions for fields.”

Calibrating equipment is also a critical factor. Yield monitors, as well as application equipment, must be calibrated precisely. “Often, farmers just have to make the time to do these things.”

Computer issues also pose challenges. “Sometimes they crash,” he said. “And yield monitors may malfunction. Human error is also a distinct possibility, so write down everything.”

Yield monitors, especially for cotton, have been inconsistent, Popp said. Cotton yield monitors may be especially erratic during periods of high humidity, when yields will be off a bit. “Always make a note of conditions.”

Weather, as with all other aspects of farming, affects variable rate technology.

Even with the challenges, Popp envisions a future in which more and more farmers will adopt the practices that will help them manage costly inputs. “Information will be more detailed, more representative and based on environmental conditions,” he said.

Farmers will continue to face huge risks and narrow profit margins, but as technology continues to advance they will have better and better tools to identify problem areas and productive spots within fields. And that will allow them to manage those risks with a bit more confidence.