Acres of Accuracy

Precision farming techniques fine-tune modern agriculture.

The words "accuracy" or "precision" suggest quality, durability, and efficiency, as in a fine watch or a nicely crafted automobile. Yet these words must also describe America's agricultural industry as it enters the 21 st Century. Today's society and economic realities are beginning to place more demands on agriculture to be more cost-effective and environmentally conscious in producing the crops that make up the bulk of the world's food supply.

But being precise in agriculture is not easy because of mother nature's whims. Uncertainties of weather, insect, and weed infestations or even variations in soil types and nutrient availability are big challenges for most producers. Another challenge is to avoid polluting our environment with agricultural chemicals, which also are expensive. Today's farmers reach for research and sophisticated technology to even the odds.

Enter the concept of precision farming — a crop-management system employing computer modeling, global positioning satellites, and computer-aided harvesters that measure crop yields in different parts of the field. This same technology gives "smart" fertilizer and pesticide application machines the ability to lay down materials accurately and according to need.

Paul Ayers, professor in the Department of Chemical and Bioresource engineering at Colorado State University, explains, "We'll often see different soil types and varying weed infestations within the same field. The practice of applying a uniform amount of herbicides over the entire field often is expensive and wasteful."

Ayers' research concentrates on variable-rate application using direct-nozzle injection, a technology that allows the sprayer to vary the rate of material applied to the crop according to herbicide demand at any place in the field. A computer tracks the exact location of the sprayer in the field using signals from global positioning satellites thousands of miles out in space. This information is combined with other data from field maps to determine herbicide application rates for different parts of the field. The computer then controls how much material is applied and where.

Ayers is quick to point out that smart machines don't take over the job of good management in farming. There is no replacement for sound business practices and judgment. Instead, precision farming tools respond to the needs of the farmer, making part of his operation leaner, cleaner, and more precise with the help of advanced technology.

Precision farming involves three basic elements: information, intelligence, and interaction. Information is the data about such factors as past crop yields, soil type, fertilization, and presence of pests. Intelligence is the process that analyzes gathered data and makes decisions using established science and research. Interaction combines the best intelligence with the best machines to produce more crops economically and with minimal environmental impacts.

So far, Ayers' work mostly has been with equipment manufacturers and commercial applicators to test new methods and industry claims of effectiveness. He also frequently expands his work as a team researcher on joint projects with other Colorado State researchers and scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Presently, few producers employ precision farming techniques. Outfitting an operation with computers, global positioning equipment, and sprayers is expensive enough to make most farmers think twice. But Ayers believes that as the industry progresses and as techniques and machines become more available and affordable, precision farming will become much more common.

"In certain conditions it just makes good sense," he says. "The ultimate goal is to implement sound management techniques with smart machines to avoid the practice of spray and pray!"