A Dothan peanut farmer, a Limestone County soybean producer and a Brewton cotton farmer may have completely different operations, but they have at least one thing in common. They all have a lot of money tied up in the tools of their trade. Whether that includes a new combine equipped with all the latest bells and whistles or a well-worn but meticulously maintained peanut digger, the investment is significant.
While it’s difficult to estimate the average dollar amount of equipment assets for individual operators, the value of all U.S. agricultural equipment manufactured in 2009 totaled more than $37 billion. The agricultural equipment industry is big business, and for farmers that means big decisions.
Improved technology has dramatically enhanced the capabilities of agricultural equipment. Today, it’s all about precision, with global positioning systems and other advances creating efficiencies that optimize returns and preserve resources.
According to John Fulton, associate professor of biosystems engineering at Auburn University, the three precision agriculture technologies of GPS guidance, variable rate application, and automatic section control allow farmers to plant, spray and harvest with greater accuracy. Such precision reduces overlap, which, in turn, lowers fuel and fertilizer costs and lessens risk to the environment from runoff and leaching.
Fulton estimates that more than 60 percent of the land in Alabama is farmed using at least one of the three precision agriculture techniques, which translates into significant savings.
“Using GPS guidance alone can create an average 10 percent savings for the operator, which equates to about $15 million for Alabama farmers,” he says. If all three technologies are used, Fulton estimates the savings could be as high as 22 percent, or between $5 and $8 per acre. Plus, it provides farmers with the added bonus of collecting data as they farm, which enables them access to their planting, spraying and harvesting history.
Benefits Money Can’t Buy
Of course, all those benefits come with a cost. But, as Fulton says, “a farmer who is already looking at making an investment of $200,000 or $500,000 for a piece of equipment will likely spend a few thousand more on the GPS receiver to unlock the software capabilities of the computer in the cab if they understand the benefits.”
And once farmers have used precision agriculture technology, they’re hooked, says Fulton, and not just because of the economics.
“We’ve surveyed Alabama farmers, and they tell us it’s actually a quality-of-life issue,” he says. “The automatic guidance systems lessen fatigue for those who work 10 to 12 hours in the field. It’s an intangible benefit that you can’t put a price on.”