Adoption of precision agriculture (PA) by Alabama farmers continues to increase with current adoption rates estimated to be approximately 70 percent. Precision ag technologies help farmers reduce application overlap and target crop inputs to where they are needed. This approach allows farmers to increase their efficiency in the field, maximize crop yields, improve environmental stewardship and compete more effectively in global markets. However, with any successful business, the bottom-line must be considered before adopting anything new. As more farmers consider this technology, questions from producers on payback period and profitability continue to be asked.
Studies on PA benefits have demonstrated a 10 percent average savings for these technologies in a row crop situation. There are several variables that could affect savings: the accuracy and repeatability of the system used, the shape and size of the field, the crop and/or the type of technology used. For example, one would expect higher savings with a RTK (real-time kinematic) guidance system with ± one inch accuracy and ± one-inch repeatability versus a low-end guidance system with ± six to eight-inch accuracy and ± four to seven-feet repeatability. Technologies like automatic section control, in which the system turns the planter or sprayer off is areas where inputs have already been applied, can yield tremendous savings especially when coupled with RTK guidance systems. Smaller or odd shaped fields, which tend to have more turn-rows and end-rows, can also yield higher than normal savings because PA technology can help the producer reduce overlap.
Payback period for these technologies varies based on the number of acres and number of applications the system is used for as well the initial cost of the system. For example, if a producer makes a $10/acre application to their field, the producer who has 500 acres will have paid for a $3,000 guidance system after the sixth application (based on 10 percent savings in inputs). Although these numbers will change depending on the variables mentioned above, PA technologies will benefit almost every producer and provide a payback to their operation.
Amy Winstead is Agri-AFC’s Precision Agriculture Manager.