The agriculture industry is at a crossroads right now. The costs of labor, fertilizer, and water are all on the rise while the supplies for all three seem to get interrupted more frequently than ever. Many farmers, both experienced and new to the field, are looking for a way to continue thriving in the face of these new challenges as well as the threat of increasing severe weather.
The traditional ways of growing are simply not sufficient to protect the health of the industry and the global food supply anymore. It’s time to usher in the era of precision agriculture.
Moving forward, we’ll…
- Define “precision agriculture”
- Provide examples of ways farmers can use environmental data to smoothen their experience and protect their businesses in the face of growing weather challenges
- Explore how any grower can start being more precise at scale
What is precision agriculture?
Dr. Amanda Ashworth of the USDA Agricultural Research Service defines precision agriculture as “a general term to describe farming based on observing, measuring, and responding to within-field variability via crop management.”
To put it a bit more simply, it’s using a network of measurement and monitoring tools to understand temperatures, moisture, sunlight, and beyond for a variety of specific locations in your field. Instead of envisioning the farm or the field as a single place with a generalized climate, precision ag requires farmers to think about their growing area as a variety of distinct micro-regions and manage each segment in a more tailored way.
Why is precision agriculture so relevant in 2023?
What we’re describing above may sound like a lot of work at first, as it requires using tools in new ways and greater attention to detail compared to traditional farming. With that said, growing severe weather challenges are basically making precision agriculture a necessity if farmers are to maintain both production and profitability.
When we surveyed over 100 farmers and growers for the 2023 AEM State of Agricultural Weather Challenges Report, more than half of respondents said that they had lost at least $10,000 dollars to weather-related challenges in 2022. 75% of the data pool said weather is either their biggest or second biggest business challenge.
Precision agriculture offers growers the chance to make the most of their investments in water, fertilizer, seed, and labor. By analyzing hyperlocal weather and environmental data (soil moisture and temperature, UV radiation, leaf wetness, etc.), farmers can build a ground-level understanding of the field that guarantees total visibility of conditions for every crop, acre, and row. Using these tools, growers can allocate resources where they’re needed most and understand their progress toward a profitable harvest in a way that supports business planning.
How can farmers use weather and environmental data to improve agriculture?
According to our research, about 70% of farms already have weather stations on-site, but the vast majority of those growers are actually missing out on many of the insights their stations could be providing. Let’s take a look at some of the things most growers aren’t doing that could easily make a difference.
Forecasting frost & calculate chill
Chill accumulation quantifies how much cold a plant has been exposed to during the winter months. For fruit and nut growers, getting enough chill hours is essential to maintaining robust and healthy trees.
Based on our survey, only about 30% of farmers are currently using their weather stations to help them understand chill in the field. By increasing visibility of variable chilling across a wide growing area, fruit tree growers can better understand specific micro-regions where they can expect a strong harvest and also identify areas that requires additional management and intervention to maintain healthy trees.
Calculating growing degree days
Understanding the number of Growing Degree Days (GDD) your crops have accumulated is essential to planning a strong harvest and provides useful milestones for time-sensitive interventions like fertilization and pest mitigation. Any farmer with weather stations in the field could easily be leveraging that data for GDD calculations, but less than 30% of growers are currently doing it.
Monitoring soil to maximize water and fertilizer
With water and fertilizer more precious than ever, using them at the right moment has never been more important. If you water when the ground is too dry, everything just runs off, costing you money while robbing your crops of nutrition.
By monitoring soil temperature and moisture across the field, you can understand the best places to invest your water resources day-to-day and time your fertilization efforts to maximize retention in the soil around your plants, but our research shows only about 11% of farmers are doing it today.
Monitoring air quality to preserve product quality & worker safety
Given dusty, drought-blasted fields and increasing wildfires, air quality is a growing concern for farmers. Wildfire smoke is a major health hazard to anybody who is exposed to it, and it can also taint some crops, like grapes, potentially ruining a harvest.
By understanding air quality across your operations, you can ensure your laborers are working in safe conditions that do not create any undue liabilities and also visualize where smoke taint might be occurring so you can monitor those crops closely.
Managing pests more proactively
In our survey of farmers, over 50% of respondents said that, out of the new challenges posed by increasingly volatile weather, increased pests or fungi was either the first or second biggest cause of financial loss for their businesses. While it might seem strange at first, weather technology can actually help reduce those losses.
Pests and fungi appear at specific points in a plant’s growing cycle or under specific conditions (temperatures, moisture levels, etc.). By using your weather stations to calculate growing degree days and monitoring other factors like soil moisture and humidity, you can know when your plants’ enemies are likely to appear and mitigate more proactively.
How to start using precision agriculture
Generally speaking, the first step to precision agriculture is getting your hands on a weather station and a gateway that will extend data from your sensors to your computer, smartphone, or tabletop console. Once you have that basic setup in place and understand how data is gathered and flows firsthand, you can start strategizing about scaling up with a larger monitoring network to help get more and more precise.
Planning and implementing that full-scale network on your own might be a little challenging, but an AgTech configuration specialist can help you scale and design your network to meet your exact goals, operation, and budget. Contact one of our agriculture specialists today to get the conversation started.