A time or two in their careers, Dr. John Fulton and other members of the Alabama Precision Agriculture team may have wondered if their upbeat message was falling on deaf ears.
Precision farming practices would reap producers big savings, if only farmers would give it time. Everything associated with their training and research convinced them of that.
Some farmers did give it time — several, in fact, including Hillsborough farmer Don Glenn, helped pioneer precision farming practices.
Yet, a few continued to express doubts.
Now, after a decade, team members feel a measure of vindication. Precision farming does save.
How much? Team members estimate that the practices are saving Alabama producers an estimated $10 million annually — and precisely in the ways they expected it would: by improved accuracy, namely steering them clear of the overapplicaton of inputs such as seeds, pesticides and nutrients.
"Granted, these savings vary according to management practices, type of farming operation and other factors, but the bottom line is that guidance systems and automatic section controls have been able to reduce overapplication of inputs," says Fulton, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System precision farming specialist and Auburn University associate professor of biosystems engineering.
Yet, it's not only about avoiding overapplication, Fulton says.
He says these technologies have equipped producers with something equally valuable — a considerably more refined understanding of their operation's potential and limitations, which has enabled them to improve less productive areas and, in some cases, to take the least productive areas out of production.
In fact, that is one of the lessons associated with precision farming that is revealed over years rather than days or weeks using this technology and approach, he says.
"We have testimonials from producers speaking about that very thing," Fulton says. "There were unproductive areas within fields where fertility was low and it took some time for those site-specific management practices, such as variable-rate applications of nutrients, to pay off."
Likewise, this enhanced picture has enabled producers to make better decisions.
"We're maximizing yields in a variable sense across the field, but at times, you've got to take some areas out or transition it to a different type of production — pastureland or forestland," Fulton says. "Again, the knowledge you gain from these practices help you make the proper decision to maintain or increase your profitability."
Through his own experience working with helping producers adopt these practices, he's noticed something perhaps even more significant. The added efficiency secured through this technology is providing something else valuable — time, which producers can use to gain a clearer picture of their place within the wider global farming context.
"We don't think about this much, but this gives farmers more time to study and to interact with other producers and agribusinesses about what's going on globally," Fulton says. "These practices help free up their time so that they can maker smarter decisions — to set goals for next year or the next five years."
In addition to the $10 million in savings, team members have also seen between a $2 and $8 increase an acre in overall return among producers using precision farming practices.
Fulton and other team members also stress how the reduced overlap and increased application accuracy of inputs are reflected in the 10 percent reduction in applied nutrients and pesticides, which, in turn, contributes to improved environmental stewardship.
Also, the reduced nutrient and pesticide use associated with variable-rate technology and automatic section control has also reduced soil loading, and, consequently, the runoff into surface water that typically follows.
More accurate placement of crop inputs has also resulted in fewer passes across the fields, resulting in decreased fuel usage and a reduced energy footprint for farmers.
The repeatable field travel pathways and reduced field traffic that has followed the adoption of this technology have also contributed to reduced soil compaction and erosion, thereby enhancing soil quality.
Team members believe the best is yet to come. For example, research is under way to determine how geospatial technologies associated with precision technology can be used not only to optimize biomass transportation but also to schedule shipping directly to bioenergy facilities. Such an approach not only would help reduce transportation costs but also increase the value of biomass products.