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Precision Farming

What precision farming is and is not

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‘Precision Farming’ is a term that appears to be misunderstood by agriculture scientists in India. This name is indiscriminately used by agricultural institutions to seek funding for their project activities. There is a need to create awareness and present information on precision farming as it is understood in developed countries.

Several steps in scientific farming have been used for more than half a century in western agriculture. They include laser planning of land; chiselling; minimum tillage; complete analysis of soil samples for 12 or more essential plant nutrients; fertilizer placement in the root zone; mechanical and chemical control of weeds; integrated pest management; siphon irrigation; drip and micro-sprinkler irrigation; and ploughing back crop residues in the soil. Indian farmers with their limited knowledge and scanty practical experience on scientific methods of farming are still to adopt most of these steps in their farming operations.

However, the concept of precision farming is outside the domain of these techniques. It is strictly based on the Global Positioning System (GPS), which was initially developed by U.S. defence scientists for the exclusive use of the U.S. Defence Department. The unique character of GPS is precision in time and space. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan released it to various civilian uses such as navigation, earthquake monitoring, and synchronisation of telecom networks.

The initiation of GPS into farm operations is less than a decade old. Its use is fast spreading to all aspects of farm operations and beyond. Some of the areas in agriculture where precision farming is taking hold with implications for the economics of farming are listed below. Since the subject is vast and fast growing, it is difficult to compile a complete list of applications in this limited presentation.

1. Soil Fertility


a) This involves dividing a field into several small and equal divisions using the sub-inch accuracy of GPS. To do this, the tractor is fitted with a dish antenna to receive signals from satellites, which are recorded on a tractor-mounted computer. Soil samples are mechanically taken from each sub-division and this process is technically known as “Grid Sampling.”

b) Samples are tested in a modern soil testing laboratory for about 17 parameters including physical and chemical characteristics of the soil and recorded.

c) Using the test results of this grid samples, composite colour–grams are created through computer simulation on each of the17 parameters for the entire field (see Figure 1).

d) The colour-grams are stored as stencils in the computer for various functions. One of the chief among the functions is balancing soil fertility of the field with respect to all major, secondary, and micro- nutrients. This is achieved through tractor-mounted computer guided spreader equipment capable of reading the variability of fertility from colour-grams. Fertilizers are then automatically applied at variable rates only to where they are needed as indicated by the colour-grams.

In practical experience, the savings in fertilizer cost from this variable rate application alone will more than offset the cost involved in the programme. Besides, use of this method brings about greater uniformity of soil fertility in the field, leading to maximum economic yields of crops, which could not be achieved through other methods.

2. Other applications of the GPS-generated grid method

The grid generated by GPS is stored in the computer and used for site-specific evaluation and monitoring of numerous functions involved in crop production to achieve peak efficiency in farm management. Some of these areas are listed below:

a) Planting variable rates of seed to maximise crop yields from the specific fertility of each grid section.

b) The GPS-guided grid system helps to apply variable rates of herbicides and pesticides to achieve maximum control of weeds and pests. This not only reduces the cost of chemicals used, but also improves efficiency of pest control and protects environment.

c) This enables the farmer to side dress application of fertilizers at variable rates to meet the specific requirement of each grid section, thus improving fertilizer use efficiency.

d) Irrigation rates are tailored to the requirement of each grid area improving water use efficiency.

f) Scouting for pest information and pest control are achieved on a site-specific basis.

g) At harvest, crop yield information is recorded on a grid section basis. Solutions for differences of yield between grid sections are sought through computer analysis of all variables controlling yield of crops that are stored in the computer. Based on this, the farmer fine-tunes his or her variable rates of application of fertilizers and other impacting parameters for use in future cropping programmes.

h) One other great advantage of the GPS system of farming involves the ability of the farmer to achieve greater efficiency in time control of his farm operations. This is because the GPS system enables him to operate his equipment round the clock irrespective of factors restricting visibility such as fog, darkness, or even showers. The sub-inch accuracy of GPS-based operations provides the farmer maximum efficiency with equipment operations.

India is reported to spend hundreds of crores of rupees in projects called ‘Precision Farming.’ A small fraction of the current expenditure on so-called precision farming can purchase the real thing, including all hardware and software involved. The question is: when will it ever happen in India?

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Precision farming benefits sugarcane growers

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Precision farming has worked wonders in sugarcane fields in and around irrigated belts of Aranthangi in Pudukottai district.

Sugarcane growers who reaped harvest of sugarcane at the demonstration plots in Erukkalakottai village on the occasion of the 'Field Day' on Thursday realised the benefits of this subsidy-based scheme in terms of higher yield, better quality in produce and less cultivation cost besides profitability through more attractive returns.

The harvest per hectare has shot up from 150 tonnes, which was obtained using  conventional methods, to 225 tonnes now by employing the precision farming technique. The cost of cultivation has also registered a drastic cut by at least Rs. 20,000 per hectare. Further, the profit per hectare has increased from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 1.25 lakh.

The Agriculture Department, under the National Agriculture Development Programme, had floated during 2008-09, a special cluster of demonstration plots on 20 hectares with 20 farmers. Each farmer raised the crop on one hectare. “This is the first cluster under the precision farming technique in sugarcane cultivation in Aranthangi”, said R. M Sivakumar, assistant director of Agriculture.

C. V. Meiyyanathan, Aranthangi Panchayat Union chairman, who inaugurated the harvest of cane, said the cluster called the  ‘Avananthankottai Cluster of Sugarcane growers' had farmers identified from  Avanathankottai, Poovatrakudi; Panankulam and Erukkalakottai villages. Each farmer got a subsidy worth about Rs. 65,000 per hectare for raising the CO-86032 variety.

The subsidy component included  water-soluble fertilizer worth Rs.20,000; besides Rs. 40,000 towards the purchase of fertilizer tank. Pointing out that the Centre had released a subsidy of Rs. 13 lakh for the Cluster, he appealed to the sugarcane growers to ensure the sustainability of the programme.

R. Niraivu Anna, president of the Cluster, said the farmers took to precision farming after an exposure visit-cum-training in Madurai, where it had proved its success. The precision technique was less labour-intensive in terms of crop protection techniques, he said.

K. S. Senthilkumar, senior manager, EID Parry (India), said the sugar factoryencouraged precision farming in sugarcane. A special subsidy of Rs. 6,000 a hectare was being released to cane-growers. He explained that uniform supply of fertilizer to the sugarcane and efficient nutrient management had gone a long way in avoiding wastage of fertilizer and water. The sugar factory had started its special crushing season on July 31.

M. Vairamuthu, deputy manager, EID Parry (India), explained the steps taken to expose farmers to the advantages of precision farming.

Mr. Sivakumar said two clusters had been formed for  successive seasons. The Maramadakki Cluster for 2009-10 season had started on cultivation in Maramadakki, Tirunalur and Paravakottai villages.

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Precision Farming

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Imagine you are a farmer riding along in your 50,000-acre wheat field early in the growing season. You push a button on your tractor to turn on its Global Positioning System (GPS) monitor, which pinpoints your exact location to within one meter. Touching another button, you display a series of Geographical Information System (GIS) maps that show where the soil in your field is moist, where the soil eroded over the winter, and where there are factors within the soil that limit crop growth. Next, you upload remote sensing data, collected just yesterday, that shows where your budding new crop is already thriving and areas where it isn’t. You hit SEND to upload these data into an onboard machine that automatically regulates the application of fertilizer and pesticides—just the right amount and exactly where the chemicals are needed. You sit back and enjoy the ride, saving money as the machines do most of the work. Congratulations, you are among a new generation of growers called "precision farmers."

Does this sound like a science fiction scenario? It’s not. Even as you read this, there are already dozens of farmers around the United States and Canada who use satellite and aircraft remote sensing data to more effectively and efficiently manage their croplands.

"Precision crop management is still in the experimental phase," states Susan Moran, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and member of the NASA Landsat 7 Science Team, based in Tucson, Arizona. "But there is a significant number of farmers who use high technology and remote sensing data for precision crop management."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, NASA, and NOAA are among key agencies contributing to this revolution in large-scale agriculture. The goal is to improve farmers’ profits and harvest yields while reducing the negative impacts of farming on the environment that come from over-application of chemicals.

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