19 Oct 2017

Huge benefits from precision agriculture - farmers

4:29 pm on 19 October 2017

Precision farming started in the mid 80s with GPS to guide tractors and harvesters in straight lines on auto pilot, but it has moved on a lot since then.

Precision farming

Farmers say the benefits from precision agriculture are huge. Photo: Wikicommons

Now sometimes called digital agriculture, it encompasses a wide range of devices and was born out of military, aviation and space technology.

Precision farming is farm management technology used to observe, measure and then respond to different challenges on a farm.

This could include different soil types and water moisture levels, nutrient levels or livestock numbers.

An international conference on precision farming was held in Hamilton this week.

Raj Khosla

Raj Khosla Photo: RNZ

Raj Khosla is professor of precision agriculture at Colorado State University and is regarded as a world authority on the subject..

He said he believed precision agriculture has come a long way in the last 30 years and was a way of growing more food with fewer resources.

"Agriculture continues to be one of the largest consumers of fresh water on the planet and as the population is increasing, there is increasing pressure on the same natural resources.

"So how do we grow more to feed more mouths and do it with less nitrogen, less water and less inputs in general? Enhancing efficiencies is one of the major goals of precision agriculture."

Mark Branson is a crop and sheep farmer from Stockport in South Australia.

Mark Branson

Mark Branson Photo: RNZ

On his 1200-hectare farm everything is connected to GPS so he knows exactly where he is and what is required in any particular part of it.

"I can make decisions from yield maps at any time."

These are pulled together from data and photos inputted on his computer.

Mr Branson said the technology meant he could focus herbicide on a small patch of weeds within a larger pasture and save money on weed-killer.

Using drones was also big in a precision farmers' box of tricks.

"You can get above the crop and see the variability from above which is a lot better view of your paddock than from two metres off the ground," he said.

Craige Mackenzie is a leading New Zealand proponent of precision farming.

He has a 200 hectare arable cropping farm and interests in a dairy farm in mid-Canterbury, and was the International Precision Ag Farmer of the Year in 2016.

Mr Mackenzie first took up precision agriculture in 2008.

"We were doing the best we could with what we had I guess, but being able to step it up and being able to spatially apply fertiliser, water, nutrients and herbicides just made such a massive difference.

"You had to get around the technology and know it was robust and affordable."

He said the benefits from precision agriculture were huge.

"It is like anything, you have to do it right."

He said it could have a negative impact if done improperly.

"The key thing for us is around environmental sustainability and that is good for the bottom line generally so it is not hard to get those benefits."

Mr Mackenzie said new innovations were on the way including real time soil sensors for nitrogen, potassium and nitrates which show what was leaching.

Soil monitoring spatially from the cloud or from satellites was also on the horizon.

"There is a range of stuff coming and it is pretty cool."

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