The adoption of various techniques collectively referred to as "precision farming" is generally considered important to the future sustainability and profitability of agriculture.
Southern Region SSP has funded numerous research studies that consider a variety of precision farming technologies, especially as they apply to irrigation and nutrient management. Our survey considered the degree to which various technologies studied in SSP research have been adopted by growers in the southeastern region. Respondents were presented with a series of items that asked how frequently they use various technologies. They responded by selecting one of four possible responses (never, seldom, often and always).
Figure E presents the technologies assessed and the proportion of respondents who report using each one either often or always The use of aerial photography and remote sensing was very low with only about 5% indicating they use these techniques often or always. The proportion of growers who frequently use subsurface irrigation (11.5%) and precision grid sampling (17.4%) was somewhat higher. Variable rate fertilizer application was the only practice that appears to have a moderate rate of adoption, with nearly one-third (31.5%) of growers using this technique often or always.
Figure E - Use of Precision Ag. Technologies
Several studies suggest that the adoption of precision farming techniques is related to cost. Potential cost saving was previously found to be a factor in why growers adopted certain technologies73 with the high investment cost for the necessary equipment being a key limiting factor24. On a related note, it was determined 80,51 that farm size plays a major role in deciding whether to adopt certain technologies, given that larger farms can spread equipment costs over more acreage. On the other hand, growers were sometimes more reluctant to implement specific technologies (in-ground sensors, remote sensing) on larger farms due to either expense or the amount of time needed to implement the techniques on a larger scale79.
Of the precision farming techniques we assessed, only precision grid sampling was more likely to be adopted on larger farms. This was true when precision gird sampling was considered relative to the number of cotton acres being farmed as well as for total farm acres.
Notwithstanding the various reasons why farmers may be inclined to adopt precision technologies, there is accumulating evidence that these methods are economically and environmentally advantageous. For example, remote sensing (aerial photography combined with limited field scouting for ground-truthing) in order to guide site-specific application of Mepiquat Chloride has been shown to improve economic return by $66 per acre. Additional evidence confirmed the value of irrigating based on aerial-imagery in Georgia, as these plots saved between 0.6 and 1.2 inches or water.79 Studies conducted in Mississippi60 found that precision farming practices (e.g., variable rate application of seed, nitrogen fertilizer, plant growth regulator and insecticide) increase yield by 6 %, reduced insecticide costs by between $1.04 and $2.45 per acre, and reduced plant growth regulator expense by $1.27 per acre depending on year. Although fertilizer costs increased between $0.19 and $0.07 per acre, net savings per acre ranged from a low of $0.97 to $3.66.
Certainly, the cost of implementing new technologies on a wide scale is a key factor that limits adoption. Yet, prior experience shows that the cost of any new technology tends to decrease over time, while the effectiveness or utility tends to increase. Cost-sharing support for purchasing precision farming equipment and/or services (e.g., through NRCS EQIP or CSP) might facilitate adoption should such resources become available.
Our survey shows that the current level of adoption of precision farming techniques remains somewhat limited. Although SSP may not have achieved its goal of improving profitability in this area, we nonetheless conclude that support for studies of precision farming should be continued. As growers typically list profit and environmental benefits as the primary reasons for adopting technology81. SSP may want to concentrate on studies that could provide additional evidence for those benefits. Given current economic conditions and climate concerns, specifically with regard to drought conditions in the southeastern United States, incentives for technologies that conserve water and increase profits are likely to increase in the coming years. As suggested by Roberts et al.80. SSP may also consider funding projects on topics such as variable rate technology that specifically target, younger, college-educated cotton growers.