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Data collected from Precision Agriculture (PA) tools can deliver more insight than ever and yet many producers find themselves faced with the frustration of feeling that these tools often pose more questions than answers.

As a Thomas Elder consultant, I’m faced everyday with the challenge of ensuring that the data collected through various tools remains a useful and meaningful part of everyday agronomic decisions and the basis of conversation to drive profitability.

Collecting and interpreting data from spatial tools is one of the easier steps in applying a PA system on farm. The next step is to convert the acquired knowledge into a well thought out plan that provides an appropriate solution to a problem or objective we are trying to achieve.

By having good understanding of the way data is collected and its limitations for use, you will understand that there is no absolute right or wrong way to use PA tools or the information that they generate. There is no textbook approach to converting the data into a solution, but the way you choose to interpret the data will affect your outcome. What you are planning to do with the information will impact several factors:

  • The technology you are comfortable with,
  • The machinery and associated hardware that you have already or are willing to invest in, and
  • The goal you are trying to achieve.

For many people, the solutions are obvious and implementing agronomic or management change will undoubtedly be advantageous. However, for others, defining a clear and beneficial solution may be more challenging. It is important to realise that PA is not for everyone. Applying spatial tools to existing management practices needs to have purpose, and not be undertaken because you feel it’s something ‘you must do’.

The crux is that sometimes the data just does not warrant the need for alternate management strategies. In this case, consider the data collection effort as a very useful exercise, as it leads to the confirmation of existing practices.

Lastly, variable rate application should not be the goal; it is another tool that helps you achieve the goal of optimising your production and profitability.

Soil layers are one of the more useful data layers in PA. While yield data effectively captures how variability impacts the crop, it does not identify what is the actual cause of variability itself. Some crop variability can be attributed to management practices, agronomy and weather; however, a significant degree of variability relates to how the crop is responding to changes in soil conditions. The changes in physical and chemical attributes of the soil within each field contributes significantly (but not in isolation) to the variability. Hence why PA should be considered a science, with a focus on the bigger picture.

Prior to the introduction of soil mapping instruments, agriculture relied solely on soil testing methods to characterise soil types. Now we can measure and map soil properties at many locations in a field using vehicle mounted sensors. Sensors successfully increase the sampling rate, making them more reliable than soil testing alone and can easily be used to create accurate soil maps. There are several automated soil mapping instruments available which successfully map agricultural soils in Australia.

The below table provides a percentage improvement you should consider when deciding to implement a change in practice from a precision agriculture program.

 

CV ValueGeneral Rule of thumb in PA
<5%Generally, not enough variability to be concerned.
>5% <10%Starting to become interesting enough to try and understand especially in higher value crops and irrigated crops. Looking at some trials for investigation.
>10% < 15%Should be starting to see enough to have financial benefit in most crops.
>15%Would be encouraging the investigation of variable rate inputs and not worry too much about trials - should have a high return on investment

Table 1: CV values and an indication of their values in PA.

 

At Thomas Elder Consulting we provide specialised independent tailored advice to help producers with the complexity of interpreting geospatial data for successful implementation and sustainable profitability and productivity.

If you would like more information about improving your application of PA tools in a meaningful way, please contact Neal Stevenson or your local Elders branch.

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