Expanding on Precision Agriculture

Small farm

Rural System proposes precise, total property management rather than simply precise agriculture.

This morning I discovered a realm of thought and practices that blew me away and made me smile. As a new writer for Rural System, I had mistakenly assumed that the idea of precise land management was unique to the company. Little did I know we live in an age where well over 17,000 on-the-go yield monitors harvest North American crops.

On-the-go yield monitors sample grain mass flow, moisture content, and speed as the combine moves across the field. Some monitors include GPS to map the data per unit area on-the-go. The data can easily be plugged into a GIS program as well, and integrated with data about soil nutrient content or whatever other field characteristics you’re interested in. And of course, this information helps you make decisions about what parts of your fields need more fertilizer or other inputs. These monitors are just one kind of tool available to practitioners of precision agriculture worldwide.

Dismayed, I stopped to consider what Rural System proposes to add to the already growing field of precision agriculture. Then I realized that actually, my personal discovery is a fount of good news for the brainchild of Dr. Giles. As he was well aware, there are already a plethora of useful and efficient data collection devices for land characteristics in use or in development. Most all of the pieces are present for Rural System to operate, we simply need the funding to put them together.

The fully operational Rural System goes beyond precision agriculture. Rural System addresses forestland, ponds, and streams- addressing all of the managed property rather than farmland alone. We propose a diversification of enterprises in addition to agriculture to maximize the profits that can be made from the land.

So let’s take a look at what’s going on at the cutting edge of precision agriculture today. What are the most useful tools we have? (And what do you, dear reader, know about this growing field?)

  • Of course, there are the aforementioned yield monitors, which allow the farmer to view variations in yield and moisture content across a field.
  • The University of Nebraska is developing an on-the-go soil sensor which can be used with variable rate application equipment in real time. The soil sensor provides the farmer with information about different soil properties depending on the kind of sensor used. An electrochemical sensor, for example, provides information about soil nutrient levels and pH. An on-the-go pH sampler is already commercially available here.
  • Variable rate application is a technique now commonly used in precision agriculture. Variable rate applicators allow the farmer to increase pressure or decrease speed to increase the amount of fertilizer or pesticide applied in a given area.
    1. One form of variable rate application uses an electronic prescription map. Using the map and a GPS unit, the operator can vary application rates across the field.
    2. The other form of variable rate application responds to a continuous stream of information on soil characteristics from an on-the-go sensor.
  • For those of you who like cruise-control, farm vehicles can now be guided by satellite. That is, the operator inside can adjust his or her course to prevent overlap with previous passes over the field. This is particularly helpful in poor-visibility conditions. “Stay on target…”
  • Remote sensing is used to gather data about a field from a distance. Remote sensing manipulates electromagnetic energy to obtain information about your target object. When electromagnetic radiation hits an object, it can be reflected, absorbed, or transmitted. Every object is unique, in that different wavelengths of radiation respond differently depending on the object’s characteristics. This technique can be used to obtain information about plant health, moisture content, nutrient levels, and etc. NASA has a useful page on remote sensing. You can also check out the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. There are two types:
    1. Aerial photography.
    2. Satellite Imagery.

New technologies are still being developed for this interesting new field. It is my hope that Rural System will have the opportunity to expand on precision agriculture, implementing available tools in its many diverse enterprises. All that is required are the funds.

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About Laurel Sindewald

Laurel is an alumna of Warren Wilson College with a BS in Conservation Biology and a BA in Philosophy. She is a writer for Rural System, Inc.


  1. Laurel Sindewald says:

    If it is not too bold, I’d like to add something that just occurred to me. There is another possible split between many precision agriculture proponents and Rural System. Some precision agriculture technology seeks to make manpower obsolete, such as mechanical harvesters for tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, and grapes. (From Precision Agriculture- a World Overview.) Rural System would like to do the opposite and re-connect communities with rural land. We don’t need fewer jobs for breathing humans. If anything, we just need less waste of the final agricultural products.

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