In precision farming: Patience plays a critical role

Patience may be one of the most important virtues a farmer needs if he's interested in adopting precision agriculture.

Keeff Felty, an Altus, Okla., cotton and wheat farmer, says a precision guidance systems, for instance, provides “one of the best tools we've ever had. But it takes time and a willingness to work things out. We have to have the patience and the temperament to work with glitches, especially with the narrow planting window we have.”

He compares a guidance system to a computer. “Sometimes it crashes and we have to wait for it to come back on,” he says.

“Sunspots and other factors beyond our control can affect the technology, but we have to wait. If we go on without it, we defeat the purpose of the technology and we can't use the system for the rest of the year. We have to commit to it or not and that's not just global positioning system technology but a lot of other innovations.”

He says farmers who break a plow they use for two weeks a year may wait two days or longer to repair it. “That's a tangible thing and they can fix it and get back to work,” he says.

Technology glitches seem fuel frustration, however. “Some growers push the button and if it doesn't work lose patience with it. Precision farming technology is another tool and every tool needs its own set of wrenches. Tools break but precision technology will be back up and it can be the best tool we use. We can be more productive and undergo less fatigue because of things like guidance systems.”

Felty is working with Oklahoma State University precision agriculture researcher Tim Sharp to identify ways to improve cotton production efficiency under unique Southwest conditions.

Sharp uses remote sensing, GPS technology and physical observations to identify vigor zone differences. Felty has completed one year with the study and says the data so far “confirms what I expected. We have spots in the fields that fill cotton baskets faster than other areas. Yield monitors show us precisely where those areas are.”

He says any farmer who runs his own harvester knows where the good spots and the weak ones are, but information he's accumulating from Sharp's study adds precision to his estimates and shows production ranges across the field.

“It's interesting. We've seen yields vary from 1300 pounds to 1200 to 900 pounds in the same field. Yield monitor data may not be 100 percent accurate but it's close and gives us points of comparison.

“We can check weak spots and identify problems, such as heavy morningglory infestation. We can drop 400 pounds in an area with heavy weed pressure. The information allows us to adjust management.

“We may have known where the spots were; now we can find out the why.”

He says precision farming data may allow him to use variable rate technology to apply fertilizer as needed to certain spots within a field. That could be a significant advantage with fertilizer prices as high as they have been for the past two years.

“In some spots we may not be using fertilizer as efficiently as possible. Technology allows us to make changes to improve that.”

He says technology allows farmers to transition from theory to reality. “In college we learned a lot about theory but in the field we see a lot less black and white and a whole lot more gray.

“Weather, for instance, remains the most critical factor in agriculture and we can do absolutely nothing about it. We can put in a crop and make no mistakes and weather can ruin it. It's hard to explain that to folks outside the industry.”

He says variable rate technology may be contrary to conventional thinking but it may be the best tool to maximize efficiency. “We may put one-fourth the usual amount of fertilizer on parts of a field. Higher input costs are causing us to consider managing specific parts of fields separately. We have to look at production inputs differently.”

He's also looking hard at tillage systems. “We'll do a lot more reduced tillage farming,” he says. “Now, we have the tools to make it work. And we have to quit going over the ground so many times.”

He says reduced till farming may not be as attractive as conventional systems with standing stalks and grain stubble poking through. “But evidence is growing that it's a better way,” he says.

He's also adding drip irrigation, another good candidate for a precision guidance system. “I'll add about 150 acres of drip this year, in no-till cotton. I plan to add more in the fall.”

Keeff says farmers face big challenges to make a living from cotton and wheat, and says technology may be the best edge they have.

“We have to do the best job we can, apply a certain level of management and material and then hope weather cooperates. Precision farming gives us one more tool to make better decisions.”

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