Precision Agriculture

Soy farmers use tools and methods collectively referred to as “precision agriculture” that help conserve water and reduce inputs such as fuel, fertilizer and crop protection products (herbicides, insecticides, fungicides), among other environmental and community advantages.

Precision agriculture is an approach to farm management that uses information technology (IT) to ensure crops and soil receive exactly what they need for optimum health and productivity. The goal of precision agriculture is to ensure profitability, sustainability, and protection of the environment.

Precision ag utilizes specialized equipment and software–including satellites/GPS, drones, and field sensors–to access real-time data about the conditions of crops, soil, ambient air, area weather predictions, labor costs, equipment availability—even local traffic data. Predictive analytics software then uses that data to provide farmers with guidance about crop rotation, optimal planting times, harvesting times, soil management and more.

Five key areas of technology in precision ag include:

  • Auto Guidance: Auto-steer uses GPS signals to automatically control the tractor in seeding, spraying, fertilizer application, and harvesting, thus reducing overlap of farming operations and leading to substantial fuel savings.
  • Machine Section Control: This technology turns planter, fertilizer, or sprayer sections on or off in rows that have been previously seeded/sprayed, or at headland turns, point rows and waterways.
  • Variable Rate: Variable rate technology uses sensors or preprogrammed maps to determine seeding, fertilizer, crop protection application rates. Supporting technologies include variable rate controllers, GPS, yield monitors, crop sensors and soil sensors.
  • Machine and Fleet Analytics: Real-time monitoring of equipment, providing information like GPS location, equipment idling, traffic control and route suggestions.
  • Precision Irrigation: Ability to apply different amounts of water to different areas of the field. Focused on center pivots in western states.

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), with support from ASA and other agriculture groups, recently conducted a study of the environmental benefits of precision ag in the U.S., including soybean production.

  • The study explored five key environmental benefits achieved through precision agriculture technology adoption, including:
    • Yield benefit through increased efficiency
    • Fertilizer utilization by more precise placement
    • Pesticide usage by more accurate application
    • Fuel savings due to less overlap and better monitoring
    • Water savings through more accurate sensing of needs
  • Tools used in precision agriculture include climate and weather stations, remote sensing, GPS tracking, yield monitors and maps, on-the-go sensing, high-tech imagery, etc.
  • Adoption of precision agriculture tools and practices has resulted in significant reduction of the use of fertilizers, herbicides, fossil fuels, and water.
  • The study, which analyses precision ag as far back as the 1980s and as recently as 2019, found precision agriculture practices led to:
    • 7% improvement in fertilizer placement efficiency
    • 6% decrease in fossil fuel use
    • 9% improvement in herbicide application efficiency
    • 4% reduction in water usage
  • Looking at those same numbers with an eye to the future:
    • Productivity has increased an estimated 4% and has the potential to further increase 6% with broader adoption.
    • Precision agriculture has improved fertilizer placement efficiency by an estimated 7% and has the potential to further improve an additional 14%.
    • Herbicide use has been reduced by an estimated 9% and has the potential to further decrease 15% at full adoption.
      Fossil fuel use has decreased an estimated 6% with the potential to further decrease 16%.
    • Water use has decreased an estimated 4% as a result of current precision agriculture adoption with the potential to further decrease 21% at full adoption.
  • Yield benefits came from accurate spacing, optimization of fertilizer and herbicide applications, fuel savings from fewer field passes and other more efficient tillage and harvest practices, and water savings from preventing evaporation and run-off.
  • What do those numbers mean in context?
    • Fuel savings alone due to precision ag tools is the equivalent of taking nearly 200,000 cars off the road each year – or avoiding 18,000 average flights.
    • while preventing an area equal to 4.5 Yellowstone National Parks from being added to production because of yield increases.
    • The application of an estimated 30 million pounds of herbicide was avoided due to adoption of P.A. technologies, with an estimated 48M pounds of additional herbicide that could be avoided with broader adoption.
    • The application of an estimated 750,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water was avoided due to adoption of P.A. technologies.

Our pledge:

AEM and supporting partners on the survey ASA, National Corn Growers Association and CropLife America have pledged to:

  • Enact policies that reward innovation
  • Improve enabling infrastructure, including wireless broadband over croplands and rangelands
  • Grow farm income so producers have capital to invest in their operations
  • Improve consumer communication that builds on trust in science