Cost-effective options include focusing on software, maximising smartphone potential, and considering more custom application work.
New equipment is expensive. So expensive, in fact, that investing in new – and even newer used – equipment can seem like an insurmountable hurdle for smaller-scale producers.
Because so many innovative planting and crop production solutions come with new equipment, that new technology is itself inherently expensive. Just like buying land, businesses need to either have enough ready cash, or access to enough manageable debt, to invest in the latest precision planting tech.
There are more affordable ways to adopt novel agronomic technologies, though – starting with the personal pocket computers we all carry.
For one Ontario grower, better utilising smartphone capabilities and accessing precision planting technologies through indirect means can help smaller producers adopt take advantage of new technologies without putting their businesses on the line.
“Have you maxed out what you’re carrying around in your pocket? I feel like we’re tripping over a lot of really powerful tech that’s really cheap. A lot of that is related to your smart phone or mobile devices,” says Peter Gredig, an Ontario grain farmer and technology developer designing mobile products and strategies for the agriculture sector.
Himself working 1000 acres, Gredig says the reality of current equipment prices is such that he, like many, can’t justify purchasing new or even slightly-used machinery. Even if a grower wants to adopt compaction-reduction technologies or a more accurate precision planting system, for example, the upfront costs combined with often unclear return-on-investment makes such investments largely untenable.
However, despite so many others finding themselves in a similar position, his experience suggests knowledge of what simple programs can do – such as cloud-based record keeping and production apps, or those allowing for efficient data sharing with agronomists and other advisors – is not widely understood.
“Take advantage of low-cost or free satellite imagery that tracks plant health through the season,” Gredig says, citing services offered by Corteva, Dekalb, and Fieldview as options providing accurate information on management zones and site-specific management opportunities.
“The ultimate goal, at least in North America, is to start managing by productivity zones. This can be super simple where you have three zones of low medium and high productivity. Most farmers can identify these zones from memory. Small producers can start with simple zones and work forward from there.”
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Such approaches to agricultural technology might be comparatively small and less flashy, but they can have a significant positive impact on production, efficiency, marketing, and many other areas – provided they are used strategically.
It’s not about how much tech you have or can get, it’s about knowing what’s available and what’s a right fit
“Really we’re just dealing with software now not as much hardware. Regardless of what the scale is you need to know what’s out there,” he says. “It’s not about how much tech you have or can get, it’s about knowing what’s available and what’s a right fit.”
Whether to build equity or otherwise, feeling as though one should own everything can itself be a challenge. But though it can be hard to accept at times, buying into new technology via a custom service company, or as part of a pool with neighboring farms, can work well.
Taking this approach, says Gredig, allows growers to outsource the expense and risk of buying or leasing new equipment, while making even better use of comparatively inexpensive agronomic tools.
“You can work with your agronomist, get soil maps done without too much effort, and access that precision technology fairly cheaply by hiring someone to do it,” he says.
Aftermarket options designed to fit older equipment offer another avenue, and the variety of options continues to grow the longer technologies (e.g. yield monitoring systems) become available.
For example, Gredig says a ten year old tractor or combine could likely be fitted with an auto-steer system fairly easily. Similarly, seeders and other application equipment from the last decade tend to be fairly easy to upgrade.
But this approach can have limitations. “For a combine from the mid-1990s, you could spend half the purchase price getting it up to speed with new stuff,” he says. “It is a real challenge.”
Staying ahead of the curve can be difficult, but Gredig reiterates the cost of new technologies tends to decrease over time – while often simultaneously improving in quality and effectiveness. One only has to compare GPS systems from today and decades past for a clear case study.
He also believes the ability to make decisions from real-time data could, for smaller producers at least, prove more valuable than the latest, most advanced pieces of field iron.
“What I see learning more from is the Internet of things and remote sensors that will tell you what kind of stresses are present, things that really drive real-time decision making,” Gredig says.
“It’s expensive, but I would invest in that before I invest in precision-agriculture just because it allows me to make decision in real time.”