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Immediate conditions could slow adoption of precision agriculture, expert says

Jim Mintert, a professor and extension economist in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, talks gives a presentation during the 18th Annual Precision Ag Conference on Wednesday at the Huron Event Center. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 4
Brett Anderson of Groton, left, answers a question while fellow farmers Brock Edgar of Rockham, second from left, Louie Nigg of Peever, second from right, Lee Lichty of Wessington, right, as moderator Rick Hansen with Precision Ag Solutions, center, leads a Precision Agriculture Farmer Panel during the 18th Annual Precision Ag Conference on Wednesday at the Huron Event Center. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 4
Brett Anderson of Groton, left, answers a question while fellow farmers Brock Edgar of Rockham, second from left, Louie Nigg of Peever, second from right, Lee Lichty of Wessington, right, as moderator Rick Hansen with Precision Ag Solutions, center, leads a Precision Agriculture Farmer Panel during the 18th Annual Precision Ag Conference on Wednesday at the Huron Event Center. (Matt Gade / Republic)3 / 4
Jim Mintert, a professor and extension economist in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, talks gives a presentation during the 18th Annual Precision Ag Conference on Wednesday at the Huron Event Center. (Matt Gade / Republic)4 / 4

HURON — Farmers are becoming increasingly optimistic about the future of their industry, but they see the near future as fairly bleak.

A recent survey showed 71 percent of producers expected widespread good times over the next five years, a significant increase from October when 35 percent of producers expected a better future.

James Mintert, director of Purdue University's Center for Commercial Agriculture, presented those results to a crowd of about 140 people Wednesday at the 18th Annual Precision Agriculture Conference, hosted by South Dakota State University Extension, in Huron.

CCA has conducted surveys of about 400 farmers every month since October 2015. Mintert said the election of Republican Donald Trump as president has had an effect on the recent results.

"People tend to be more optimistic about the future, the more distant future, than the current situation of agriculture, which we think reflects some of the stress going on with respect to agriculture, the downturn in the commodity prices we've experienced," Mintert said.

In addition, 39 percent of survey respondents expected to be better off financially in one year, compared to 11 percent at the end of 2015 and 17 percent in October 2016.

That means about 2 out of 5 farmers expect to improve financially in the next 12 months, but the survey also showed about two-thirds think now is a bad time to buy buildings, machinery and other large investments. The number hasn't changed much since October 2015, and that could further delay the adoption of precision agriculture technology for some producers.

Precision agriculture is a way of managing farms for the best production and economics, said Laura Edwards, state climatologist with SDSU Extension. That can include adopting automated and GPS technologies to plant seeds more efficiently and evenly apply fertilizer.

More retailers are providing precision ag services, Mintert said. Only 12 percent were offering grid- or zone-soil sampling in 2000, but 41 percent offered it in 2015, with 54 percent expected in 2018. Satellite imagery offerings have also grown from 3 percent to an expected 28 percent.

Producers have followed suit, using GPS in their yield monitors and guidance systems at an expected rate of 59 and 64 percent, as estimated by retailers. That's a large uptick from 5 to 15 percent, respectively, in 2005, but Mintert said precision agriculture technology hasn't caught on as quickly as other developments, including hybrid corn and Roundup Ready soybeans.

Mintert believes people adopted the genetic modifications more easily because the change was as simple as buying a different bag of seeds and produced immediate, obvious benefits.

"Precision ag isn't quite that simple if you want to get the benefits," Mintert said.

Precision agriculture technology can be expensive, and it may not create an obvious increase in yields, but for a 2,000-acre corn farm, Mintert estimated an operation could invest $11,000 in equipment and receive a return of $17,800 by planting and using fertilizer more efficiently.

"The investment rule is if net present value is greater than the initial cost of investment, make the investment. It's a good investment," Mintert said.

Precise planting

But because precision agriculture can help producers avoid double planting and wasting seeds, some area farmers said the technology helped increase their yields, too.

Brett Anderson, of Groton; Brock Edgar, of Rockham; Louie Nigg, of Peever, and Lee Lichty, of Wessington, sat on a panel following Mintert's presentation to explain how adopting precision agriculture technologies benefited their operations.

"We probably over doubled our yields on our corn, so that by itself paid for it in one year," Edgar said.

Edgar's fields went from producing 75 or 80 bushels of corn per acre to 120 or 135 thanks to seed savings, which was previously wasted or double planted.

The advanced technology also allows producers to monitor every aspect of the operation, and Edgar said it makes the planting process easy.

"You sit in it for 16, 18 hours a day, you can see these things on these monitors. You've got nothing to do in there anyway," Edgar said.

Anderson said adopting precision agriculture doesn't have to be expensive. He said the secondary market is strong, so farmers should be able to find used equipment. Lichty, on the other hand, slowly purchased different pieces to add to his operation.

No matter how a producer wants to go about it, Nigg recommended taking the leap and start reaping the benefits of more accurate planting.

"You've just got to get it into your head that you've got to go forward with technology. You know it's going to work. You know it's going to pay for itself in the long run just to have all the information at your fingertips that you can monitor," Nigg said. "Do a little every year, just keep up with progression, not just trying to maintain, just always trying new things."

This was the first time the conference was held in Huron, Edwards said. For 17 years, Aberdeen played host, but vendors and organizers wanted to reach a new audience.

As many as 225 people attended the conference in recent years in Aberdeen, but Edwards doesn't know where they conference will be held next year. Among the 140 in attendance Wednesday were 50 students and 16 vendors.

"Hopefully this conference will spur on some thought on how folks can think about return of investment and how much it will cost to invest in different technologies, both hardware and software," Edwards said.

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