The mechanization of American agriculture has been ranked as one of the top 10 engineering accomplishments of the past century, right alongside the invention of the computer and putting a man on the moon.
Randy Taylor, Extension agricultural engineer at Oklahoma State University, told the general session of the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans that electronics and control systems for use in precision agriculture could match in importance such things as the tractor and the rubber agricultural tire, both key elements of the mechanization of agriculture in the last century.
Satellite guidance systems for tractors burst upon the American agriculture scene in the 1990s, leading the way to an era of precision agriculture that has quickly matured, with many opportunities ahead, according to Jon Hardwick, Newellton, La., cotton producer, chairman of the National Cotton Council and moderator of the Beltwide opening session.
Taylor said adoption of precision agriculture technology allows farmers to manage crops on a smaller or more finite scale without sacrificing the capacity of highly efficient, large equipment.
Being able to farm in zones using yield mapping and sensing equipment as part of capabilities of tractor satellite guidance and mapping systems allows farmers to specifically identify differences in fields.
Farmers know there are differences across fields. “You can draw a zone map of a field using a Crayon,” Taylor said.
Precision agriculture has allowed producers to accurately identify zones and do something about them using maps coupled with computer-generated application techniques.
Sensors and yield maps pick up those zones, but what they pick up may not always be easily corrected. For example, Taylor said sensors may pick up a high vigor area of the field with the assumption that it should be yielding well when in fact a yield monitor proves that to be untrue.
Areas where a grower gets no response from increased nitrogen is another area that precision agriculture technology reveals that something is a mystery.
Taylor says this has led to the new idea of “high zone management.” He defined it as the fusion of sensory information with historical yield map data. The concept is another step in the evolution of precision agriculture.
Cotton is the one crop that is the most “responsive” to remote sensing. However, Taylor said many remote sensing companies using aircraft and satellite to collect aerial imagery to map fields are no longer in business because imagery cannot replace ground proofing.
Taylor said while several aerial mapping providers are gone, sensory technology, both aerially and of late soil and plant sensors, will play a key role in precision agriculture in the future. The challenges will continue to be determining what are the causes of the stresses that are identified by sensors.
He said there is a new wave emerging of ground sensors using light to measure such things as plant height to detect zone differences. Quality sensors are another new development in precision agriculture.
Yield mapping may have been one of the early elements of precision agriculture, but it remains the most important. “Yield is what sells,” said Taylor. Achieving maximum yields remains the goal of all farmers.
Precision technology also opens the door for farmers to do more on-farm research.
“Do your own research,” Taylor encouraged growers. These emerging precision ag tools afford growers the opportunity to learn more about their own farms.
Precision ag may have burst on the scene rapidly, maturing relatively quickly into a technology many farmers have embraced. However, to develop its full, future potential will be an evolution, not a revolution, he added.