Pre­req­ui­sites for pre­ci­sion fertilisation 

Pre­ci­sion farm­ing and site-spe­cif­ic cul­ti­va­tion have been around for a long time in the agri­cul­tur­al sec­tor. In fact, the tech­nol­o­gy has been devel­oped and test­ed in prac­tice since the 1990s. The sci­ence is based on var­i­ous fields of research: improved sen­sor tech­nol­o­gy for analysing soil and plant prop­er­ties on the one hand, and more advanced farm machin­ery-based tech­nolo­gies for record­ing and eval­u­at­ing har­vest­ed crops on the oth­er. Mod­ern, site-spe­cif­ic fer­tilis­er spread­ing equip­ment is also an area of focus – with the aim of detect­ing localised dif­fer­ences on farms to con­tin­u­ous­ly improve plant growth. Data on soil prop­er­ties, yield mea­sure­ments and plant para­me­ters are com­bined and inte­grat­ed into maps to inform agri­cul­tur­al activ­i­ties such as site-spe­cif­ic fer­til­i­sa­tion. To ensure the data is opti­mal­ly eval­u­at­ed, it is worth using a farm soft­ware pro­gramme.

The aim of pre­ci­sion farm­ing is to utilise fer­tilis­er and seed more effi­cient­ly. It can there­fore be assumed that pre­ci­sion farm­ing enables farm­ers to achieve a high­er con­tri­bu­tion mar­gin in crop cul­ti­va­tion. Con­se­quent­ly, the eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits may include low­er costs due to reduced inputs or high­er, bet­ter-qual­i­ty yields. It can also be assumed that nutri­ent effi­cien­cy and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty increase, while the risk to ground and sur­face water decreas­es. The advan­tages are how­ev­er accom­pa­nied by costs relat­ed to data acqui­si­tion, soft­ware and farm machin­ery, which should be tak­en into account when eval­u­at­ing pre­ci­sion farm­ing tech­nolo­gies. Farm­ers need to care­ful­ly exam­ine the extent to which pre­ci­sion farm­ing actu­al­ly reduces costs below the line. We present the crit­i­cal fac­tors rel­e­vant to this exer­cise in the next chapter.

Fac­tors for eval­u­at­ing pre­ci­sion farming 

Pre­ci­sion farm­ing can be applied to var­i­ous agri­cul­tur­al activ­i­ties. Drilling, fer­til­i­sa­tion, plant pro­tec­tion and tillage can all be per­formed on a site-spe­cif­ic basis with the help of appli­ca­tion maps. Improve­ments in fer­tilis­er spread­ing, for exam­ple, are in the region of up to 50 per­cent of the reg­u­lar appli­ca­tion rate. Sim­i­lar results can be achieved in drilling.

Stud­ies also show that the seed rate can be sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduced with­out affect­ing yields. A reduc­tion in the appli­ca­tion rate can even be achieved with site-spe­cif­ic plant pro­tec­tion spray­ing. How­ev­er, the active ingre­di­ents in plant pro­tec­tion prod­ucts are often applied in com­bi­na­tion, which means it is not always pos­si­ble to reduce the spread rate with­out poten­tial­ly com­pro­mis­ing their effi­ca­cy. If the impact is too min­i­mal, there is a risk of pathogen resis­tance. This is why the use of pre­ci­sion farm­ing for plant pro­tec­tion should always be assessed on a case-by-case basis and planned precisely.

In terms of fer­til­i­sa­tion, com­pre­hen­sive tri­als analysing the effi­cien­cy of site-spe­cif­ic cul­ti­va­tion already exist with­in the pre­ci­sion farm­ing domain. The eco­nom­ic via­bil­i­ty of pre­ci­sion fer­til­i­sa­tion depends on var­i­ous fac­tors, such as the invest­ment required in order to use the tech­nol­o­gy in the first place. This includes the cost of site-spe­cif­ic spread­ing equip­ment and soft­ware. The local con­di­tions and key met­rics such as the farm size, area under cul­ti­va­tion, crop pro­por­tion and vari­abil­i­ty of the fields are also impor­tant when mak­ing an assess­ment. It is worth not­ing, of course, that on soils with min­i­mal vari­a­tion, the effect of site-spe­cif­ic fer­til­i­sa­tion will be min­i­mal. Staff train­ing should also be fac­tored into the cal­cu­la­tion. The cost of acquir­ing infor­ma­tion and train­ing staff is often omit­ted, which then dilutes the accu­ra­cy of the assessment.

As such, a full cost­ing is need­ed in order to draw robust con­clu­sions. Sev­er­al meth­ods are avail­able for exam­in­ing the effects of pre­ci­sion farm­ing: one option is to con­duct par­cel and strip tri­als to com­pare uni­form and site-spe­cif­ic cul­ti­va­tion vari­ants, and anoth­er is to use growth mod­els to sim­u­late the effects of adapt­ed fer­til­i­sa­tion on yields.

The poten­tial of pre­ci­sion farming 

The lit­er­a­ture paints a var­ied pic­ture when it comes to assess­ing the ben­e­fits of pre­ci­sion farm­ing tech­nol­o­gy. The eco­nom­ic effects of an adapt­ed fer­til­i­sa­tion approach are assessed both pos­i­tive­ly and neg­a­tive­ly. One rea­son for this is the high num­ber of (most­ly) uncon­trol­lable envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors that make it hard to eval­u­ate the effects quan­ti­ta­tive­ly. It is also espe­cial­ly dif­fi­cult to con­duct field tri­als under sta­ble con­di­tions. In terms of the envi­ron­men­tal effects, it has been proven that site-spe­cif­ic fer­til­i­sa­tion can help to reduce envi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion from nitrate leach­ing in many areas. Eval­u­at­ed field tri­als also prove that a high­er con­tri­bu­tion mar­gin can be achieved in crop cul­ti­va­tion through the use of pre­ci­sion farm­ing tech­nol­o­gy. How­ev­er, the results are rel­a­tive­ly wide rang­ing. Each indi­vid­ual farm should there­fore inves­ti­gate and decide on the finan­cial via­bil­i­ty of pre­ci­sion farm­ing for their own operations.

Pre­ci­sion farm­ing tech­nol­o­gy also enables the auto­mat­ic doc­u­men­ta­tion of crop cul­ti­va­tion activ­i­ties and out­comes. From this point of view, there is an untapped trea­sure trove of data on every farm that can be used gar­ner mean­ing­ful infor­ma­tion on how to farm it effi­cient­ly. To start pro­cess­ing this influx of data, a suit­able farm man­age­ment infor­ma­tion sys­tem such as the free basic ver­sion of 365FarmNet is required. The soft­ware enables farms to col­lect, con­nect and eval­u­ate their farm busi­ness data. They can then use the infor­ma­tion it pro­duces as an impor­tant deci­sion-mak­ing basis for crop cul­ti­va­tion activ­i­ties. As such, the right farm soft­ware pro­gramme is a handy tool that can enable any farm to delve fur­ther into the top­ic of pre­ci­sion farming.

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