From Plows to Precision Agriculture
Maximizing Profitability through Precision Technology
Modern farming has evolved since the days of horse-drawn plows. According to Taro Mieno, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, little research is dedicated to the true economic impact of adopting precision technology on farms. Mieno’s research focuses specifically on how precision agriculture technologies impact profitability for farmers.
Mieno said precision agriculture recognizes the diversity of characteristics within a field through technology. Some examples of precision agriculture include drones, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and irrigation technologies. The goal of precision agriculture is to learn new management practices to increase the profitability of agriculture production.
“The core of my research assists farmers to maximize their profitability. The most rewarding part of economic analysis is helping farmers decide how to provide monetary value through those technologies,” Mieno said.
According to Mieno, farmers should consider which technologies add value to management practices. Drones and similar equipment may be the face of futuristic agriculture production, but these technologies are not necessarily the answer to maximizing profit for all farmers because of their high costs at the moment, Mieno said.
According to Mieno, technology adoption can be an expensive undertaking and the key is to focus on the specific needs of the land or crops each farmer grows. Through intentionally gathering data and collaborating with university researchers, farmers can weigh the costs and benefits of adopting certain precision agriculture technologies. Due to the diversity of farming practices, assessing the benefits of precision agriculture technology adoption on farms is most accurately found by analyzing the specific needs of each field or crop.
“Sometimes simple is best. Farmers shouldn’t automatically assume certain precision agriculture technologies that work for everyone else will automatically work for their field. Whether a certain precision agriculture technology is profitable or not is very field-specific,” Mieno said.
Collaboration Between Farmers and Researchers
Mieno typically works with farmers on-site at a farm. On-farm research is particularly useful to Nebraska producers due to the variability of land and crop characteristics across the state. According to Mieno, on-farm research empowers farmers to learn about the specific needs of their crops.
“The idea of on-farm research is quite powerful because you learn about your field. That means you get to learn how to manage your own field instead of inferring what happened on a different field,” Mieno said.
Methods such as soil sampling provide valuable insight for farmers. However, Mieno said it is critical for farmers to evaluate the return on investment of collecting the data. For example, the more soil that is gathered from a given field, the more information is available to farmers about the characteristics of the field. This information assists in making management decisions.
(Picture of soil sensor on tractor or soil sampling)
“Obviously, the more soil sampling, the better information you have, but you are paying for the soil sampling. So, there’s a race between the cost of collecting information and the benefit of having that information,” Mieno said.
Further, the data collected instructs farmers to use amounts of fertilizer and water that maximize yields while minimizing excess use of resources. According to Mieno, the data gives farmers necessary knowledge to minimize input costs, which positively impacts profitability.
Ultimately, the primary objective of precision agriculture is to improve profitability for farmers, but precision agriculture technologies also provide farmers key data to responsibly steward Nebraska’s natural resources through precise nutrient and water application.
According to Mieno, as technologies continue to evolve, farmer preference will be the determining factor regarding which precision technologies become sustainable solutions. Consequently, creating technologies that suit farmer needs are at the forefront of the university’s research efforts.
“We must continue to identify the needs of farmers. Extension educators and researchers are doing research to assist farmers to make the best decisions,” Mieno said.
Mieno said collaboration between farmers and researchers, including on-farm research and other scientific studies, will continue to be critical as technologies develop in precision agriculture to maximize yields and profits for farmers.
Precision Technology Builds Environmental Resilience
The effects of precision agriculture technology extend far beyond the fields of rural Nebraska. According to Mieno, precision agriculture technologies, such as the use of nitrogen and moisture sensors, are tools to assist farmers in maximizing profit and yield while also keeping Nebraska’s natural resources resilient.
In the case of nitrogen application, nitrogen sensors attached to tractors allow farmers to analyze what areas of fields need varying levels of specific nutrients. Precision agriculture technologies also assist farmers to efficiently apply water on cropland, Mieno said.
Moisture content is especially important regarding soil health and according to Mieno, conventional methods can make it difficult for farmers to identify the exact moisture content in soil. Therefore, many farmers are turning to soil moisture sensors. Mieno explained moisture sensors give farmers the information to be precise in water application, which also has an impact on groundwater availability for future generations of Nebraskans.
“You cannot test water content in the deepest part of the soil. Soil moisture sensors give farmers information about how much water soil has, which will help them avoid applying water when it is not actually needed,” Mieno said, “Using less water for irrigation means farmers can use groundwater for a longer period of time.”
Precision technologies empower farmers to make management decisions that preserve resources while maximizing profitability. Fully leveraging the information precision technologies provides requires intentional collaboration between farmers and university researchers to meet the needs of farmers and the world’s increasing population.