As Inland Northwest farmers continue to face rising costs in crop seeds, chemicals, labor, and equipment, agriculture specialists say industry-specific GPS-based technologies are becoming more widely used to help improve efficiency.
Those technologies include satellite-guided systems that can be installed in most types of farm machinery to help farmers spread chemicals without overlapping, says Ryan Kuster, a precision agriculture specialist with Cheney-based Ag Enterprise Supply Inc., which sells such systems. The desired end result is an improved crop yield generated with the smallest possible amounts of fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide, although many other factors influence crop yield.
Aside from fertilizer application, precision systems also can be used for things such as row spacing, tilling, harvesting, and irrigation. For applying different crop treatments, using such systems enables a farmer to take a varied approach, based on the characteristics of different parts of a field, specialists say.
"Our customer base is starting to adapt to technologies because of the economic savings," Ag Enterprise President Gary Farrell says. "The industry standard used to be 10 percent overage of application (of chemicals), but the economic viability of that is not there. They can apply at a more precise level, which is a cost savings to them first and foremost."
Diana Roberts, an agronomist with Washington State University's Spokane County Extension office, says an example of precision agriculture would be applying more fertilizer to known higher-yielding areas of a field and less fertilizer to the low-yield areas.
"Once (farmers) know parts of a field that are more likely to grow good crops than other areas ... they can put that into a GPS computer that can tell them to put more fertilizer where the ground is lower down a slope and there is better soil," Roberts says.
The GPS system then would refer to the tractor's position to control the flow of fertilizer and other chemicals that are applied to the crop, she says.
She says many farmers are using precision systems to gather data during harvest so they know which areas of a field are producing the best yields and then can refer to that data recorded by the computer during the next growing season.
Kuster estimates that at least 80 percent of Inland Northwest growers are using some sort of precision application method on their crops.
"As input costs go up, that number will go higher and higher," he says.
Input costs include chemicals that a farmer applies to a crop, such as fertilizer and pesticides, to achieve a better yield.
Kuster says the cost for a precision farming computer system can range between $6,000 and $20,000, depending on the components included.
The savings a farmer who's using a precision agriculture system might see could range between 3 percent and 15 percent, Kuster says. He cites the example of one of Ag Enterprise's customers here who's using a GPS-guided system and is saving enough money each year that it equates to the salary he pays his sole employee.
At Ag Enterprise, about 75 percent of the company's parts and service department's overall revenues are tied to precision farming, Kuster says.
He says that some of the more advanced systems Ag Enterprise sells include an automatic steering function, but that a human operator still would be in the cab running and monitoring the machine and the computer system through screens that are mounted inside showing the tractor's position and other data.
"With the GPS guidance, you can see on the computer screen where you've been and where you need to be and not only does the application equipment turn sections off when you overlap, but the computer tells you where to drive so you can maximize efficiency," he says.
Another Inland Northwest company that sells and services precision agriculture systems is Moscow, Idaho-based Columbia Tractor Inc., a licensed John Deere dealer that also has a store in the Spokane area that recently was moved to the West Plains from North Spokane.
The precision systems that Columbia Tractor sells are manufactured by Deere & Co. under the brand name GreenStar, says Dennis Guttinger, manager of the company's Moscow store. He says the GreenStar systems are compatible with any brand of tractor.
Columbia Tractor sells three models of Deere's GPS-driven systems that can be programmed for accuracy within 13 inches, four inches, or less than an inch of the tractor's actual path and the satellite's calculation, Guttinger says.
Precision ag-based sales make up about 10 percent of Columbia Tractor's overall sales, Guttinger says. He says that he believes nearly all Inland Northwest farmers now are using some type of precision-farming technology.
John Deere has begun including precision systems in some of its tractors and other farm machinery as a standard feature, starting with its sprayer systems about three or four years ago, Guttinger says. John Deere combines will start having those systems as a standard feature by next year, he adds.
Most precision farming computer systems are interchangeable between different machines as long as the piece of equipment is wired to hook up to the GPS computer, Kuster says. He adds that in recent years, he's seen many of Ag Enterprise's customers who've purchased a GPS system come back to buy a second one to install in another piece of machinery in order to avoid having to move a system back and forth between equipment.
Because many of the companies that are developing precision agriculture systems first designed them for use in the Midwest where most of the farmland is flat, Kuster and Roberts says that one issue that's commonly encountered here is difficulty in maintaining accuracy in the hilly fields of the Inland Northwest.
Technology-driven precision agriculture practices have been around since the early 1980s, but have evolved greatly since then, Kuster says.
He says the first precision application systems were designed to vary the flow rate of various chemicals applied by a sprayer to match the speed of the machine. Such applications still are used today in the farming industry, he adds.
Ag Enterprise Supply solely sells and services precision systems manufactured by Raven Industries, a Sioux Falls, S.D.-based company, he says.
Kuster says he attends a couple of training seminars each year at Raven's headquarters to stay up to date on its precision systems.
One of his roles at Ag Enterprise is to ensure that farmers who purchase a Raven system also understand how to operate it and can get basic support for any issues they might encounter while using it.
"We do initial training at the time of the install if they need it, and if they have a problem, I'm willing to go out and help them after that," Kuster says.
Ag Enterprise's parts and service department often designs and builds custom sprayer implements for farmers' specific needs, with features such as the ability to automatically or manually turn off certain sections of the sprayer through the tractor's computer system to avoid overlap, Kuster says.
In addition to those custom components, Ag Enterprise's service department receives a large amount of contracted work from the Washington state Department of Transportation, and from county governments across the western U.S., to build custom units for deicer trucks and roadside weed-spraying trucks, he says.
Those systems include GPS-guided electronics that control the amount of flow on the sprayer depending on where the truck is driving.
Such systems also can be programmed to switch off automatically in the event that the truck is approaching a stream or other sensitive area along the roadway, Kuster says.
Other customers on that side of the company's business include local lawn-care and landscape companies who also use sprayer systems to apply chemicals such as weed sprays and deicers, Kuster says.
Looking toward the future of precision agriculture technology, Kuster says he expects the accuracy of such systems to continue to improve, and also to see the addition of more features to them.
"Input costs aren't coming down at all," he says. "They will continue to rise so there will be a bigger part that precision will play. The systems now are accurate and reliable, but there is always room for improvement and affordability."
He adds that he expects precision agriculture practices also to become the norm in the industry.
"It's not 'can you afford to adopt'; it's 'can you afford not to,'" he says. "It will be to a point that farmers won't make the bottom line unless they have precision to some degree."
Subscribe today to our free E-Newsletters!SUBSCRIBE