In theory, variable rate (VR) technology should result in more efficient use of a farm’s resources, whether that’s a lower fertilizer bill, improved crop uniformity, or other potential benefits. So why, since most seeding tools are capable of using prescription maps, are adoption rates of VR not higher? And will we see a new wave of variable-rate adoption, given high fertilizer prices and increasing scrutiny of fertilizer emissions?
These questions were discussed as part of a panel on precision agriculture adoption during Canola Week in Saskatoon, Sask. earlier this month.
There are a number of barriers that must be overcome, and some of those include expectations about variable rate, notes Garth Donald, manager of agronomy for Decisive Farming at TELUS Agriculture, in the interview below.
In some cases, farms had a poor initial experience that is preventing them from trying it again, even though the technology and user experience has advanced, he says.
“Our problem has been as a group, and I’m not singling anybody out, that we need to be better at talking to the grower to ask ‘what is success to you?’ Because everybody’s like, ‘Oh, well, how much money am I saving?’ That that’s one aspect, but I have growers that the reason they’re using variable rate technology is because ‘well, I can I can go a mile an hour faster at combining.’ That’s a tangible benefit,” says Donald. “And then yes, I do have producers who say ‘I saved on fertilizer, I saved on seed or actually increased my production.'” (More below)
Donald says user friendliness is wrinkle being ironed out by service providers. He explains a lesson he learned early on was how farmers learn from doing and they made sure to have resources available to run through the equipment with growers to get them comfortable and gain a sense of trust with a new system. Having a straightforward user interface allows farmers to become familiar with the system and prevents the backslide to a manual system, he notes.
As for a second wave of adoption, Donald says he sees VR adoption rates as having dropped off of the initial highs and now starting to “come back up the valley” with improvements in user experience, technological capabilities, such as hyperspectral sensing, and pressure to improve fertilizer efficiency.
“Let’s be honest, technology’s gotten way better from when I started 16 years ago. Every drill coming out has it as OEM. It’s not a third party on a third party on third party to make this work anymore. We’ve made it simple. And yes, the regulatory is call it forcing, call it whatever, but that is what’s going to keep that drive going up for interaction with growers, and acceptance,” says Donald.
There’s also the “I’m going to retire in five years, so why change?” excuse that Donald says he hears from farmers at every farm show.
“That’s what we have to be better at — finding out what is the hang up of using it? Like, they obviously have a negative feeling about this. So why? And that’s our job to answer that, or at least try to help them.”