The USDA has identified three pillars of sustainability for the agriculture industry: reduced environmental impact, increased productivity and yield, and a better overall economic result. Today's precision agriculture technologies are helping crop farmers make significant gains with all three pillars.
Consider the analogy of a three-legged stool where the stool cannot stand unless all three legs are sturdy.
"For the environmental benefits of precision agriculture to take shape, farmers need to generate more yield and at least break even from a financial standpoint," said AEM Senior Vice President of Ag Services Curt Blades. "If a farmer is going to change a practice or invest in a new technology, the economic impact of that action has to be part of the conversation. Fortunately, we now have some rather compelling research that makes it a big part of the conversation."
The three USDA sustainability pillars line up perfectly with AEM's research, Environmental Benefits of Precision Ag. AEM worked with the American Soybean Association, CropLife America, and National Corn Growers Association to develop the research.
The study examined six key areas of the crop farming industry where precision agriculture can make both an environmental and economic impact:
- Productivity and crop yield
- Fertilizer use
- Herbicide use
- Fossil fuel use
- Water use
- Carbon emissions
The study then examined five key areas of P.A. that can make an impact in those areas:
- Auto Guidance
- Machine Section Control
- Variable Rate
- Fleet Analytics (Telematics)
- Precision Irrigation
“Farmers are the original stewards of the land and have been doing good things for a long time," said Blades. "Technology now affords farmers the ability to do even more — things that could never have happened before. A lot of GPS-driven technology is in place, giving farmers a whole new set of tools to help dial in the exact placement of seed, fertilizer and crop protection. This technology also helps farmers close the loop with insightful data that helps them monitor what they are doing to determine if there is room for improvement going forward."
Learn more about AEM's study, The Environmental Benefits of Precision Agriculture.
“Farmers are the original stewards of the land and have been doing good things for a long time. Technology now affords farmers the ability to do even more — things that could never have happened before." -- AEM Senior Vice President of Ag Services Curt Blades
Key Areas of Precision Agriculture Technology
The five primary areas of precision agriculture give farmers numerous opportunities to increase efficiency, reduce operating costs and lessen environmental impact. Precision agriculture can be leveraged across a variety of crop farming applications throughout the year.
Auto Guidance – Also known as auto-steer, this technology utilizes GPS signals to automatically control a tractor to help reduce overlap during tilling, planting, spraying and harvesting. This has a positive impact on both productivity and fuel consumption.
Machine Section Control – Turns planter, fertilizer or sprayer sections on/off in rows that have been previously treated, or at headland turns, point rows and waterways. This helps optimize the placement of seed, fertilizer and crop protection. This technology also helps optimize down pressure and depth control to gain machine and fuel efficiencies.
Variable Rate – Uses sensors or preprogrammed maps to determine application rates for seed, fertilizer and crop protection. Supporting technologies include variable rate controllers, GPS, yield monitors, crop sensors and soil sensors.
Fleet Analytics (Telematics) – Real-time monitoring of equipment including GPS location, route suggestions and idling. Any piece of telematics-equipped equipment can be monitored all year long whenever it is in operation. This technology affords an opportunity to increase asset utilization and reduce fuel usage.
Precision Irrigation – Provides the ability to apply different amounts of water to different areas of the field in order to reduce waste and optimize efficiency.
Carbon Emissions – Today’s precision ag tools reduce carbon emissions by more than 10 million tons. Additional adoption of these proven technologies would increase those climate benefits to 27.4 million tons.
How Precision Agriculture is Making an Impact
The study also examines how the above-mentioned precision agriculture technologies can impact the five key areas of environmental impact.
Productivity – The farmer can achieve better crop yields from accurate spacing and population rate. Indirect benefits include not having to place unproductive or preserved land into production, as well as reduced soil compaction and improved soil health, which help reduce inputs over time.
Fertilizer – Reduced overlap and better placement optimizes application and reduces waste. Indirect benefits include improved water quality due to reduced runoff, improved soil health and a reduction in net greenhouse gas emission.
Herbicide – As in the case of fertilizer, more efficient herbicide application reduces waste. Indirect benefits are improved soil health, reduced erosion, less weed resistance and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
Fossil Fuel – When the number of field passes and time spent idling are reduced, so is the amount of fuel consumed. Greenhouse gas emissions are also inherently reduced.
Water – More precise irrigation can save water from evaporation and excessive runoff. An indirect benefit is an improvement in water quality due to the reduced runoff.
"There is no greater threat to the environment than hunger. Being able to leverage these technologies to sustainably and affordably provide people with quality food is a win for everybody." -- AEM Senior Director of Regulatory Affairs and Ag Policy Nick Tindall
Positive Results and Available Opportunities
In examining various crop types around the country, the research data can be summed up in one sentence: Crop farmers are doing more with less.
By leveraging precision agriculture technologies, farmers have accomplished the following:
- 4% increase in crop production
- 7% reduction in fertilizer use
- 9% reduction in herbicide use
- 6% reduction in fossil fuel use
- 4% reduction in water use
A direct parallel can also be drawn between the environmental benefit of those reductions and the economic benefit. Take fossil fuel consumption, for instance.
"That's 6% less fuel on a tractor that is likely running 20 hours a day for a couple weeks straight," said Blades. "That isn’t just real money, helping the farmer save thousands of dollars in fuel expenses but has the carbon reduction benefits of taking nearly 200,000 cars off the road."
The same can be said about the use of fertilizer, herbicide, water use and crop protection. "If you're just spraying the places that need to be sprayed, that's good for the environment and the farmer's net income," said AEM Senior Director of Regulatory Affairs Nick Tindall. "Fewer pounds on the ground is a good thing all the way around."
As impressive as the data presented in the AEM study is, the potential gains resulting from more widespread adoption of precision agriculture technologies is even more impressive.
Adoption rates vary widely depending on the technology, anywhere from below 10% to 60%.. Adoption rate in the 90% range is expected to result in:
- 6% increase in crop production
- 14% reduction in fertilizer use
- 15% reduction in herbicide use
- 16% reduction in fossil fuel use
- 21% reduction in water use
To further illustrate the potential impact of more widespread precision agriculture adoption, consider the following: Current adoption has resulted in roughly 30 million fewer pounds of herbicide being applied. With broader adoption, another 48 million pounds could be spared.
In an attempt to understand where precision agriculture adoption could be headed — and how quickly — it's important to understand how far it has come already.
"Precision agriculture has been talked about for many years," said Blades. "Any kind of technology adoption must have a compelling reason for the person adopting it. Precision agriculture began making serious inroads when machine guidance and auto-steer came along. Those were technologies that made it easier for farmers to see the benefits."
As more farmers adopted machine guidance, they began to see how technology in general could help drive results in other areas.
"The adoption rate has been on a steady increase over the past 20 years," Blades pointed out. "Precision agriculture has become almost ubiquitous for anyone trying to drive income from their land. Most equipment today has some sort of this technology. That in and of itself leads to broader adoption."
"Seeing the gains that are inherent with more widespread adoption isn't just a matter of convincing more farmers to adopt P.A. technology," Tindall added. "It is also about the continued refinement of these technologies. For instance, auto steer has been around since the 1990s, but is far better today than it was back then."
One obstacle to increased adoption could tie back to the broader agriculture economy and the farmer's financial fortune. Depressed commodity prices strain net income, which strains investments and the adoption of new technologies.
"The biggest factor going forward is whether or not farmers have money to invest," Tindall said.
To leverage GPS-driven precision agriculture technologies, farmers also need an adequate level of infrastructure available in rural America. The expansion of broadband internet capability must have a strong wireless component that is accessible by machinery in the field.
Precision Agriculture is the Foundation for a Stronger Future
It's important to note that precision agriculture technology adoption is not solely about the immediate benefits of reduced fuel, fertilizer, herbicide or water use. It is also about evolving the U.S. agriculture industry to a more productive, competitive and sustainable state.
"Every farmer knows in their heart of hearts that they are trying to do the right things, like protect the soil," said Blades. "Farmers are not just doing these things for the next season; they are doing them for the next generation. Thanks to technology, there are additional tools available today that can help farmers achieve a goal they have always had: provide good food, energy and fiber to the public around the world. The beautiful thing about this new technology is that it doesn't force a choice between environment over economics, or vice versa. With today's precision agriculture technology, farmers can choose both."
"It is a global market now," Tindall said. "If today's American farmer wants to continue thriving, it's important to become more efficient. Technology plays directly into that. Precision agriculture technology that delivers both an environmental and economic benefit helps a farmer become more competitive in the international market. Plus, with a strong sustainability message, it actually helps a farmer maintain access to certain markets.
"Take the European Union, for example," Tindall continued. "Sustainability is very important to that market. Additionally, becoming more efficient and productive can help keep food prices down. There is no greater threat to the environment than hunger. Being able to leverage these technologies to sustainably and affordably provide people with quality food is a win for everybody."
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