When Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station scientists at Auburn University began investigating precision agriculture technologies 15 years ago, a key question was at the heart of the research: Would investing in the technologies be cost-effective for Alabama farmers?

Thus far, the researchers say, the answer is a resounding yes.

John Fulton, Auburn biosystems engineering associate professor and precision ag specialist, said the approximately 60 percent of row-crop farmers across the state who have adopted precision ag technologies or site-specific management strategies on their collective 670,000-plus acres saved an estimated $10 million on crop inputs in 2009, largely by reducing overlap when applying fertilizer and pesticides.

“Farmers using guidance systems and basic precision ag technologies potentially can save anywhere from $2 to $8 per acre,” Fulton said. “For farmers utilizing more advanced precision ag tools, the savings would be higher, around $15 per acre. That allows producers to purchase additional equipment and technology to improve their operations.”

Not included in those numbers are the substantial savings in time and labor that producers who have incorporated variable-rate technology, guidance systems, automatic section control and other precision ag tools into their operations report. Many of those farmers also have found that the technologies help them document their field operations more effectively, Fulton said.

In addition to improving farmers’ profit margins, precision agriculture also is allowing these producers to farm in more environmentally sustainable ways.

“They have reduced the overall amount of pesticides and nutrients they apply to cropland and pastures by an average of 10 percent,” Fulton said. “With precision farming, inputs can be applied when and where they are needed, which can mean fewer trips across fields, and that can lessen soil compaction and the risks of erosion and chemical runoff  into surface water.

“The technology also allows farmers to document their field operations — what they did, exactly when they did it and how much they applied,” he said.