Right now the technology isn't profitable for most farmers, says James (Jess) Lowenberg-DeBoer, associate professor of agricultural economics.
"You'd have to work very hard to make money with today's precision technology," he says. "However, the technology will become economically attractive as the cost comes down"
The wait for costs to drop may not be a long one. "It is mind-boggling how fast the technology changes," Lowenberg-DeBoer says. "Within two to three years we should be at something that is close to being economical."
Lowenberg-DeBoer says this timeline may be shortened even more because he expects either the 1995 farm bill or water-quality legislation to offer financial or regulatory incentives for farmers to use precision farming because of its environmental benefits.
Howard Doster, professor of agricultural economics, says widespread application of global positioning and field-mapping technology in the consumer market also will help lower prices of precision farming equipment. "Somebody will adopt this technology to bass fishing and then the costs will go down for farmers," he jokes.
Precision farming means that instead of applying fertilizer or pesticides to an entire field at a single rate of application, farmers test the soil and crop yields for areas of the field ranging from one to 15 acres, and apply just the amount of chemicals that area of the field needs. This reduces the amount of chemicals, or inputs, the farmer uses, and it has the potential to increase yields.
Agricultural experts expect the size of the areas receiving individual treatment to drop to as small as a few square feet several years from now once the technology embraces computerized field mapping, global positioning satellite technology and "on-the-fly" soil testing. (Global positioning satellite technology uses a network of military satellites to accurately determine locations anywhere on earth to within a few feet.)
"We're going back to what Squanto taught John Smith about putting a seed with a fish in a small hill of dirt," Doster says. "In the years since Squanto we've been farming bigger and bigger fields. This new farming is based on the environment of individual sites, and I'm excited about that."
Between 3 percent and 5 percent of Midwestern farmers already are using some form of precision farming, says Christian Johannsen, professor of agronomy and director of Purdue's Laboratory for Applications of Remote Sensing. But he warns that farmers should take stock of their current farm management efforts before jumping into the technology.
"Farmers who are using soil maps and computer records to evaluate the variability of their fields probably will find that this technology fits in with their operations," he says. "On the other hand, farmers who don't use computers or keep accurate records should not buy computer equipment or extra soil tests hoping that the investment will help them catch up or offer a shortcut to improved farm management."
Lowenberg-DeBoer, together with Stephen Hawkins and Robert Nielsen of Purdue's Department of Agronomy, are in the midst of an evaluation of the economics of prescription farming using current technologies at eight 50-acre fields in Waterloo, Ind. The project is being done in association with DeKalb-Agra Inc.
"What we're seeing is that precision farming using current methods does not increase yields," Lowenberg-DeBoer says. "The main benefit is cost savings from a net decrease in inputs. That makes it very difficult to justify the expense right now."
The researchers found that prescription farming can add $7.25 per acre to the cost of farming, primarily from the expense of soil testing and mapping. "It would take a savings of 35 pounds per acre of phosphorous fertilizer (at 21 cents per pound) or 60 pounds per acre of potash (at 12 cents per pound) per acre to equal the $7.25 per acre the technology now costs. That's real hard to do," Lowenberg-DeBoer says.
For farmers who are considering using the new technologies, the researchers offer these guidelines for making a final decision:
More sophisticated mapping techniques may allow the farmer to lower fertilizer costs. The problem is that for the most sophisticated mapping methods "you have to pay an expert to come out and do it, and that's expensive," Lowenberg-DeBoer says.
There is enough variability in Midwestern fields to justify precision farming techniques, Lowenberg-DeBoer says, but he points out that not all variability is important for crop management.
"The classic example of this is what happened with hybrid seed corn," Lowenberg-DeBoer
says. "The first farmers to use it had much higher yields than their neighbors, yet
they were selling at the same price, so they had large profits. As everyone began
using the hybrid corn, the higher yields caused the prices to drop. The late adopters
of the technology did so just to keep up."
"The classic example of this is what happened with hybrid seed corn," Lowenberg-DeBoer says. "The first farmers to use it had much higher yields than their neighbors, yet they were selling at the same price, so they had large profits. As everyone began using the hybrid corn, the higher yields caused the prices to drop. The late adopters of the technology did so just to keep up."
Sources: James Lowenberg-DeBoer, (765) 494-4230;
Chris Johannsen, (765) 494-6305; Internet, firstname.lastname@example.org
Howard Doster, (765) 494-4250; Internet, email@example.com
Writer: Steve Tally, (765) 494-9809; Internet, Steve_Tally@purdue.edu
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
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