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Precision farming = improved management

October 2020

Marius Greyling, Pula Imvula 
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Let us refresh our memories. Precision is a word derived from the word precise which is described as something being very exact and expressed in detail. In our farming environment one could relate this to what we do on the farm, to do it as precisely and in detail and as correctly as possible.

Keep in mind the statement – to manage you must measure. To manage properly you need information available from keeping proper records. The more accurate your information, the better decisions you will be able to make, and the better your management. 

Advanced technologies have taken on a life of its own, giving rise to the concept of precision farming. Precision farming involves the use of advanced equipment, fitted with GPS, variable-rate technology (VRT), computer applications and more, to maximise crop yield with minimum resource expenditure and by providing you with much more accurate information.

The benefits of precision farming can be summarised in three major categories namely:

  1. Higher productivity; 
  2. Financial benefits; and
  3. Greater sustainability and environmental protection.

All aspects of the environment – soil, weather, vegetation, water – vary from place to place. All these factors determine crop growth and farming success. Farmers have always been aware of this, but they lacked the tools to measure, map and manage these variations precisely. Precision farming makes it possible to achieve higher productivity and reduce potential environmental risks, by monitoring and managing all the factors of growth to ensure the optimal conditions for plant growth are achieved. 

At the same time, you will be provided with more detailed, correct, exact, and timeously information quicker from satellite images, and electronic devices (even your cell phone) on a much more regular basis than from manual records. This will then enable you to manage for instance the fertilisation, crop health programme, water requirements, and harvesting of your crops on a much more advanced level. The result being higher yields per production unit and/or improved quality products using fewer resources and reducing production costs. 

Financial benefits are also achieved. Precision farming aims to reduce a farmer’s expenditure by minimising the need for inputs like fertiliser, pesticide, and herbicide. Over a growing season, farmers have experienced significant reductions in the amount of money they are spending on inputs. The technology is assisting in the use of components sparingly and only where and when needed. Higher production leads to a higher income whilst the improved management regarding the use of inputs assist in decreasing costs. The combined effect of this are better profits.

To illustrate – the nutrients supplied by the soil can vary substantially between lands and even within a specific land. We are used to applying fertiliser on an even basis on specific lands for instance 200 kg of Superphosphate per hectare. With the advanced equipment and using GPS information it is now possible to apply different levels of fertiliser on different areas within a specific land. Where more is needed more is applied and where less is needed less is applied. There could be a cost saving and/or because the plants are supplied according to their needs a higher productivity. Some farmers have achieved an increase of up to 10% in production by using advanced technology.

As far as sustainability is concerned, farmers in South-Africa face but one major problem – to maintain a sustainable profit over the long term. This is because of, for one, the so-called cost-prize squeeze.

Farmers must deliver optimum production and improved quality outputs on a continuous basis whilst minimising inputs, without damaging the environment. To achieve this to the maximum, the use of advanced technology should be considered thoroughly – it can be advantageous but bear in mind it will put pressure on your finances and management. 

A word of caution – you must first manage your basic record-keeping and other farming practices correctly and precisely before commencing to actual precision farming using advanced technology. The advantage being that by means of precision farming your farming practices can be done so much more precisely whilst more and accurate data and information are provided timeously to be used when taking decisions. 

When introducing the advanced technology be careful not to overdo it. There could be negative financial implications, and you could become strangled in all the information. Practise precision farming with your manual systems and record-keeping and then introduce the real thing step by step with support from trustworthy advisors according to your needs.

To emphasise – should you wish to survive as a farmer, big or small, and amidst disasters such as the recent drought and now the COVID-19 pandemic you will need to be a smart farmer. These difficult times emphasises that correct, and the necessary information is needed now more than ever to be able to manage your business on a sustainable basis. Precision farming is a tool to assist you in this regard. 

Publication: October 2020

Section: Pula/Imvula