ST. JOSEPH, La. – Because cars can now “talk” and phones can play movies, it’s only natural that farm equipment would communicate with satellites to make farmers money.
For at least 15 years, scientists have been looking at what is called precision agriculture as a way to help farmers decrease the waste of fertilizer and other needed chemicals, said LSU AgCenter county agent Dennis Burns from Tensas Parish.
Precision agriculture involves the use of electrical conductivity measurements to help describe soil variability so mapping can be done to pinpoint the application of chemicals and fertilizer, said LSU AgCenter county agent R.L. Frazier from Madison Parish.
Both agents became certified as geospatial extension specialists in 2004 with a number of other AgCenter agents.
“We are using this piece of equipment that was owned by the Extension Service but wasn’t being used,” Burns said. “We took it and stripped it, and with some grant funds and some donations, we built this system.”
Farmers are catching on to the idea of precision agriculture and using the equipment for variable-rate seeding and fertilizer application.
“Farmers have all of this equipment, and our job is to help them to get the most out of it,” Burns said. “We like to give the example of a light bulb going off.”
Some growers are very comfortable with the new technology, and some are not, said Frazier.
When farmers buy new equipment like tractors, cotton pickers and combines, about 90 percent of the needed hardware for precision agriculture comes as standard equipment.
“They may have to add the sensors and do a few upgrades, but most of what they need to do the work is already there,” Frazier said.
Working with this new technology takes a little getting used to, but the benefits are worth the effort, Burns said.
“It’s like anything you do with computers,” Burns said. “You have to input the correct information, then the computer will operate as it should.”
In order for the farmers to get the most out of their equipment, they must have their fields mapped to show where the fertilizer and other chemicals are needed most.
“Then the computer will know at what point to increase or decrease the amount of chemicals or fertilizer needed,” Burns said.
The variations in soil type dictate to a large degree where more or less materials are needed, especially in the larger fields in the delta.
“We have a corn field in Concordia Parish where the rows are three-quarters of a mile long,” Frazier said. “The soil in that field goes from a silt loam on the front to heavy clay near the back, and everything in between.”
“When we come out to a grower’s field to demonstrate this equipment, you can count on them asking how much money is this going to save me,” Burns said. “And our answer is, this is not going to save you money, it’s going to make you money.”
For example, instead of just spreading 100 pounds of fertilizer down one row, the system varies the rate to where it’s most needed.
“We’re going to put the same hundred pounds out, but we’re going to put it out in the areas that will better utilize it,” Burns said.
“We’ve got to change their mindset from that of getting maximum yield to getting maximum return per acre,” Frazier said. “The highest yield doesn’t always make you money.”
Frazier explained that investing for 200-bushel corn on land that’s only going to make 80 bushels causes negative return on investment.
“If you cut that cost back to an 80-bushel return and still get 80 bushels, then you have significantly reduced your input cost,” he said.
As environmental concerns increase, famers will have to put out just what they need to make that crop, Frazier said.
The precision agriculture system in general will work with any crop but is mainly being used for wheat, corn and cotton.
That’s because there’s no need for a second application of nitrogen in soybeans, and a system for rice is not ready yet.
“The problem with rice is everything is put out by air and at 150 miles per hour. It’s kind of hard to change rates quickly,” Burns said.
The variable-rate system works better with cotton and corn because of the need to apply a midseason nitrogen application.
Recently the Cotton Incorporated producer exchange group visited farms in the Midsouth. They were interested in the precision agriculture systems that are being used on Louisiana cotton farms, Burns said.
The group of 16 producers was from Georgia, Virginia, the Carolinas and several other southeastern states, Frazier said.
“They were touring the Midsouth, and we got a chance to show them the machine and to demonstrate how it works,” Burns said.
None were familiar with the variable-rate system, Burns said. “So there were a lot of one-on-one questions after we gave our presentation and demonstration.”
These two agents are able to take information from a 50-foot plot at a research station and apply it to a 1,000 foot row in a farmer’s field.
This makes the calculations more realistic and acceptable for the growers who need to know how it will work in their unique farming situation.
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