Every grower knows there's no such thing as a perfect field. There may be parcels that produce great yields (and profits) year after year, but there's always something that could be better.
Take weeds, for example. Even in what would be considered a productive field, there could be a dozen or more different weed species present — and the number of weed seeds dormant in the ground, just waiting to emerge, could be astronomical given the thousands of seeds a single plant can produce each year.
Whether it's weeds or other potential problems (like insects, erosion, soil moisture, etc.), understanding what's going on in your fields is important. A good way to accomplish this is by using available technologies and embracing precision farming practices as a part of your overall management efforts.
In short, precision farming is an integrated agricultural management system that incorporates several different technologies. One of these technologies is GPS, which growers can use to map problem areas in their fields no matter the size of the operation.
"Everybody needs to spend time walking their fields and observing what's going on. Recording things using GPS is the best, most accurate way to do this," says Jerry Mulliken, JM Crop Consulting.
Mulliken's company contracts with growers in the Fremont, Neb., area to map up to 15,000 acres each year. As a part of this work, they scout fields looking for problem areas and then mark the locations using GPS. This data can then be used by growers for a number of purposes, including determining where to spot-spray for weeds.
According to Mulliken, taking time to check your fields and map problem areas is something that needs to be done yearly.
"You can do an awful lot on just $5 per acre … and that's a trivial expense," he says. "If you find just one weed problem, you'll pay that expense back very quickly."
So instead of applying herbicides uniformly across an entire field, spraying only where needed using GPS waypoints can offer significant cost savings to growers. In addition, there are environmental benefits to reducing the volume of herbicides used.
"There's no single best way to identify problem areas. It needs to be a system approach," cautions Viacheslav Adamchuk, an associate professor of bioresource engineering at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, who is also an adjunct associate professor and former Extension precision agriculture engineer in the Biological Systems Engineering Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Adamchuk notes that a number of technologies today can help growers identify problem areas. Besides using GPS, he says high-resolution cameras and other optical-based sensors have been developed to help identify or simply detect weeds in field conditions, but operation logistics and equipment-compatibility issues have limited adoption of these technologies. Nonetheless, Adamchuk believes everyone can (and should) scout weeds in their fields.
"There's an investment either way …paying for the time to delineate areas that require little or no chemicals, or paying for chemicals that are wasted," says Adamchuk. "Field experience shows, however, that good herbicide management and reducing the amount of chemicals applied can result in significant savings."
In short, given the importance of the bottom line in farming, finding ways to cut costs without negatively impacting yields is important. Weed mapping using GPS technology is one such technique, but other technologies can also be used to gain better knowledge about your fields.
Mulliken offers remote sensing as an example of an underutilized technology, but says even investigating what imagery services are available (such as Google Maps and USDA Farm Service Agency maps) can provide some valuable information, as long as you understand their limitations.
"Farmers have a tremendous advantage over anyone else when it comes to their fields, so they should be out there looking for things at critical times," says Mulliken.
And even though technology can play a key role in identifying, understanding and managing problem areas, Mulliken believes, at a minimum, farmers need to "pay attention, be observant and take notes" while in the field. In short, being proactive and becoming a student of your profession is important no matter what technologies are being used.
"Even a little better understanding of the biology of weeds would go a long ways," he advises.
- Yontz writes from Urbandale, Iowa.