sealPurdue News

July 2001

New center sets 'sites' on precision farming

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – In 1991 precision farming seemed to hold the potential to revolutionize farming by increasing yields while also improving the environment.

In 2001 only a few precision farming technologies have proven their value, says James Lowenberg-DeBoer, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.

He says the missing link to make site-specific farming successful are tools that can analyze data collected by farmers.

"The precision farming hardware that's available is pretty good; you can put seed or pesticide in any pattern you want, anywhere on the farm you want," he says. "But what farmers need is integrated management software that will help them make decisions that uses the data collected from the hardware."

To address this problem, Purdue has launched the new Site-Specific Management Center, which will help analyze data and develop management recommendations farmers can use based on their own data.

"How do you use precision farming technology to improve profits and improve the environment? That's the question that needs to be answered," Lowenberg-DeBoer says. "We've come a long way in the hardware and the software, but we haven't made nearly as much progress in the management issues."

Precision farming first took off in the mid-1990s as farmers began using yield monitors, variable rate applicators, global positioning systems and other electronic devices to get a better idea of what was happening in specific areas of their farms.

Researchers have been converting data into recommendations for nearly 90 years. For example, for the past half century, land-grant universities have issued tri-state fertilizer recommendations for Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.

"Whether farmers were living in southern Ohio or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we've told them to use the same amount of fertilizer and to use it at the same time," Lowenberg-DeBoer says. "With this new knowledge, we'll be able to give recommendations that are much more targeted. We may not be able to give custom information for each farm, but we'll have specific recommendations for areas the size of one or two counties."

The result will be improved efficiencies for farmers and less chemical use in the environment.

"One of the problems in creating useful site-specific farming management information is that you need a multidisciplinary team to pull it together," Lowenberg-DeBoer says. "The seed companies have agronomists and the equipment companies have engineers, but no one company has all of the people to integrate these systems. We felt that at Purdue we have all of those disciplines and people who are well known for their research. This allows them to come together to work on this problem and achieve that critical mass."

One of the center's first projects was to release "Site Specific Profitability," a book jointly published by Purdue Agricultural Research Programs and CNH Global N.V., which manufactures Case IH and New Holland farm equipment. The book offers tips on making farm management decisions using site-specific farming, such as on-farm variety performance testing using GPS-enabled technologies.

Lowenberg-DeBoer says faculty involved with the center decided to produce a book as a first step because some producers are not yet comfortable with computers. Future products, however, will be electronic.

The center's Web site eventually will offer training modules on topics such as how to calibrate a yield monitor or how to estimate the benefits of site-specific fertilizer applications.

"In the old days it would have been in extension bulletins, but today that might be in training modules on the Internet or in commercial software," Lowenberg-DeBoer says.

The center also plans to work with software companies to develop decision support software that could be used to analyze data from soil sensors or yield monitors.

"Our focus is on developing the knowledge about site-specific farming practices. That knowledge will be embodied in software," Lowenberg-DeBoer says. "Purdue's not going to get into the software business. But we are in contact with all the ag software companies. We'll study how to make site-specific farming profitable, and they'll figure out how to make the information easy to use and put in an attractive package."

The center's Web site, currently offers summaries of Purdue research on site-specific farming, plus a monthly newsletter on the topic.

Sources: James Lowenberg-DeBoer, (765) 494-4230;

Writer: Steve Tally, (765) 494-9809;

Purdue Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes, Ag News Coordinator,;

Related information:
A list of Purdue University precision farming experts is available on the Web.

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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