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Precision farming technology may hold down soaring input costs

Pay now, save later — terse and, for many producers, somewhat counterintuitive advice about how to confront what is likely to be one of the most challenging crop years on record in 2009.

Even so, two precision farming experts are convinced that investing in a few new technologies and practices now may help producers get a better handle on what will be the year's biggest preoccupation — containing spiraling operating costs.

The first is boom-control technology, a Global Positioning System-controlled technique that enables farmers to avoid applying chemicals to areas of the field that have been previously sprayed or that don't require treatment.

Preliminary research by Auburn University Biosystems Engineer John Fulton has revealed that boom-controlled spraying can result in savings of between 5 percent and 30 percent depending on the size and shape of the field.

“Especially in odd-shaped fields, you're going to see a bigger savings because there is typically more overlap associated with spraying,” says Amy Winstead, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System precision farming agent, who adds that a lot of growers who have already adopted the technology have expressed satisfaction with it.

Winstead says she already has noted substantial savings among farmers who have adopted the technology.

“There's been a huge saving,” she says, “and farmers, depending on the application, can pay off the system after only one or two growing seasons.”

Boom-control features are easy to acquire as add-ons, according to Shannon Norwood, a precision farming agent who, along with Winstead, is based at the Tennessee Valley Research and Extension Center in Belle Mina.

“There are a number of boom-control products for growers to choose from,” Norwood says. “They can order new sprayers equipped with the technology, or they can purchase a third-party product.”

With the right product selection, retrofitting of older sprayers is also possible, she says, adding that adoption rates are likely to climb as growers replace older sprayers in the next few years.

Adoption rates throughout Alabama vary, though Winstead and Norwood estimate some 15 percent of farmers statewide already have acquired boom-control technology.

Norwood cites variable-rate fertilizer applications as another option that should be seriously considered for the 2009 crop season.

“With fertilizer costs running higher, variable-rate applications of phosphorous and potassium are now a viable option,” she says, adding that soil testing is a critical first step.

“Your soil test really should be the first step in making sure nutrient rates are at their proper levels,” Norwood says, “otherwise, you won't know if the variable rate applications are justified.”

In fact, in especially lean crop years, soil testing should be viewed as an especially valuable economic tool.

For additional cost savings, Winstead says farmers also should consider the merits of guidance systems.

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