ARS scientists in Columbia, Mo., are studying how "management zones" can help farmers who want to use precision agriculture. By creating these zones within a field, farmers can target where pesticides and fertilizers, for example, need to be applied, instead of applying chemicals uniformly across the field. In this way, farmers may be able to save money and help the environment.

Led by soil scientist Newell R. Kitchen of the ARS Cropping Systems and Water Quality Research Unit, scientists are using computers to create management zones. Computers fed the latest mapped soil and crop information can mathematically find the "most alike" areas of the field.

The computer can then take into consideration thousands of the numbers, find those that are alike and "cluster" them together. The final result is a map of the field showing unique management zones created from the clusters.

There can be numerous management zones for a given field, depending on what variables the farmer wants to view. For example, a map of a field focusing on nitrogen will probably look different than a map focusing on rectifying high salinity.

Kitchen's research group has developed a software program called "Management Zone Analyst," or MZA, that helps cluster precision agriculture information for creating management zones.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.