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Some farmers hesitant to do more than dabble with precision agriculture

Capitol Press
Written By:  Capital Press Staff Writer
February 12, 1999

Pocatello, Idaho - Some Idaho potato growers are getting their feet wet in precision agriculture, and even if they aren’t ready to dive in head-first, and they like what they see.

“We’ve tried it last year and saw a difference at harvest. We are doing more this year,” said Rexburg, Idaho, grower Brian Ball during a panel discussion at the recent Idaho Potato Conference.

Growers see the potential to save on fertilizer costs in particular, by applying nutrients at a variable rate rather than at a uniform rate across an entire field.

“I think down the road we will see a lot more people using precision ag,” said Jerome, Idaho, farmer Jeff Bragg. “I think it is the thing that will help to control our inputs and keep them in line with our production costs.”

Some growers said they’ve tried precision ag, but will hold off doing any more until the technology improves or becomes more cost-effective.

For all the publicity surrounding precision ag, it has not exactly taken the industry by storm, said Minnesota farmer Gary Wagner.

“It’s not going to be a revolution.  It’s going to be an evolution,” and Wagner, the keynote speaker at the Idaho Precision Ag Conference Jan. 19.

Wagner, who farms 4,200 acres of sugarbeets, wheat and soybeans in the Red River Valley, uses remote sensors and yield monitors linked to satellites to determine the parts of his fields that are most productive and the least productive. He also maps for weeds like wild oats, quack grass and Canadian thistle at the same

“Not only are we collecting yield data as we’re harvesting a field, but we are collecting other data as well,” he said.

In the past, farmers using smaller, open-air tractors could adjust their fertilizer application to soil conditions as they went through the field, Wagner said.  But the modern tractors of today make that all but impossible.

“You get in the cab, slam the door, turn on the air conditioning, turn on the radio and you can’t even hear the engine anymore,” he said.  “If you go through a hard spot in the field you don’t even realize it.”

Applying a variable rate of fertilizer is an “environmentally sound,” practice, he said.

Comparing yield monitor maps with remote sensing maps that cover a huge area, farmers can come close to determining what their neighbors’ yields are too, Wagner said.

“It’s kind of fun,” he said. If nothing else, it gives him a good idea of which ground might be good to rent or buy when it becomes available.

To get into precision ag as heavily as Wagner, farmers need to be comfortable with computers and software programs.

“Farmers want answers in black and white, but precision ag come in 256 shades of gray,” Wagner said.

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