Precision Survey Shows Data Driven Decisions Making Gains and Robotics Establishing a Presence
Results from the CropLife/Purdue University 2020 Precision Agriculture Dealership Survey showed further steps toward a data-driven and autonomous future.
Started in 1997, the survey is the longest running survey on precision farming adoption. The survey is administered to dealers and includes precision technologies used by the retailers within their business/on their equipment, the adoption rates of precision products and services offered by retailers to customers, the dealer’s estimation of the acres in their area where farmers are using precision practices, and questions about profitability, technology investment, and constraints to adoption.
Information gathering and analysis services such as grid/zone soil sampling, UAV imaging, and yield map analysis all showed steps up compared to 2019’s results, and these were all substantially up compared to 2017 and 2015. There were accompanying and even greater increases in all variable rate services—for fertilizers, lime, prescriptions for variable seeding. Even variable rate pesticides are up, though that remains relatively small. Pooled data, especially for nutrient management and hybrid/variety placement, continues to guide decisions.
Crop robots are starting to show up on farms. This is the first year that dealers offering robotic scouting or weeding services appear on the CropLife-Purdue survey. Responses indicate that 3% of dealers offer robot scouting or weeding services now and an additional 17% are expecting to offer those robotic services within the next three years. Agricultural input suppliers are a common vehicle for farmers’ adoption of precision farming technology. Note the numbers are percentages of dealers that offer each service, not a percentage of farmers or acres.
Information-gathering technologies are the essential first part of a data-driven approach. After a decade where around half of dealers were offering grid and zone soil sampling, this increased to 67% of dealers offering in 2015, and now at 92%. Dealers offering satellite imagery, a possible foundation for creating management zones or guiding site-specific decisions, increased from 33% in 2013, to 48% in 2015, 59% in 2017, and is at 69% in 2020. Other sensing-related technologies such as yield monitor data analysis, UAV imagery, and soil electrical conductivity showed similar upward trends.
Using the sensor information for variable rate technology (VRT), where action is taken based on an analysis of field attributes, has correspondingly increased:
VRT Fertilizer applications: 89% of dealers are now offering these services, up dramatically from 54% in 2013 and 69% in 2015
VRT Lime applications: 80% of dealers are now offering, up from 45% in 2013 and 59% in 2015
VRT Seeding prescriptions: 69% of dealers are now offering, up from 24% in 2013 and 50% in 2015
VRT Pesticide applications: 27% are now offering, up slightly from 22% in 2013
Dealers were also asked if they were not offering a product or service now, would they be offering it in three years? The rest of the story for VRT pesticides is that while offerings are now relatively low, half of the dealers foresee they will be offering this in the near future--probably linked to new machine vision technology enabling weed recognition and targeting individual weeds. More dealers will also be offering VRT fertilizer and lime applications, and VRT seeding recommendations in the future.
The biggest news last year was the remarkable uptick in crop management decisions from pooled data, and for the most part this uptick held in 2020. We asked dealers to gauge the influence of data shared among farmers on crop management decisions. Pooled data is aggregated from multiple farms, either managed within the dealership or as part of an outside offering. For crop nutrient decisions, 78% of dealers said phosphorus and potassium decisions were at least somewhat influenced by pooled data, similar to last year but nearly doubling compared to three years ago, and 74% saying nitrogen decisions were being influenced, up from 39% in 2017. Of the dealers surveyed 72% indicated pooled data had at least some influence for overall hybrid/variety placement, 61% said it was influencing variable hybrid or variety placement in fields, and 59% said pooled data was informing variable planting rate prescriptions, all these nearly doubling compared to three years ago.
While robotics have now shown up on U.S. farms, in Europe their use is growing rapidly because of increasingly stringent regulation of pesticides and consumer buying that is sensitive to production practices. For example, industry sources indicate that about 150 weeding robots are in use in France, mainly on organic vegetable farms. Most of the French robots are owned by the farmers, not rented or on a fee-for-service basis.
New research in the UK indicates that autonomous equipment might be the key to economic feasibility for no-residue biopesticide use. Because those insect control products have little residual activity, they must be applied frequently (every few days). With human sprayer operators, the application costs can make biopesticides economically unfeasible. But for a farmer who owns autonomous spray equipment, the marginal cost of an additional application is mainly the biopesticide applied. The extra application cost would be negligible.
A more detailed look at the 2020 results, including graphics, is available at Croplife.com.
By: Bruce Erickson, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana
By: James Lowenberg-DeBoer, Harper Adams University, Newport, United Kingdom