You can’t fight Mother Nature. But with the right weather and precipitation data flowing directly into your farm management software, maybe you don’t have to.
Whether you have too little or too much, water plays a key role in determining the success of each crop year. Farmers today need a tool that helps them walk the line between wasting inputs in a year with too much or too little water, and missing additional yield potential when precipitation levels are at or just above 30-year averages.
Soil moisture and historic precipitation levels are two great datasets that help determine water-driven yield potential. By combining this information with actual rainfall, farmers can make quick in-season decisions that will help make the most of very drop.
Let’s take a deeper look into how farmers can use weather data — including soil moisture data, historic precipitation levels, and actual in-season precipitation — to make data-driven in-season decisions to match yield goals to available moisture. The end result? Optimizing water and nutrient-use efficiency, as well as farm profits.
Why does weather data matter?
As farmers move further and further into precision management, they need to be able to identify and target areas of their fields that may be underperforming. This is where understanding water becomes very helpful.
There are two sources of water, soil water and precipitation, which are equally important in determining crop yields. Yet, farmers typically put too high an emphasis on precipitation and don’t pay enough attention to the moisture already present in the soil.
Consider that it takes four inches of water to just grow the plant, or closer to six inches for corn. Every inch above that goes toward adding bushels, and how many depends on a number of other factors, such as crop type and soil texture. However, a crucial determining factor is also how carefully the farmer is monitoring the crop and soil moisture.
The goal, here, is for farmers to identify yield opportunities and predict yield potential weeks before harvest, which allows them to ‘pull triggers’ — or take action such as adding inputs or reducing fungicide applications — during the season that can result in tremendous benefits to ROI.
Where water-driven yield potential really gets exciting is when it intersects with variable-rate precision management. Many farmers are beginning to manage different parts of fields differently based on yield potentials supported by soil samples, tissue analysis and VR nutrition, fungicide, etc. As precision management becomes the new norm, water-driven yield potential will continue to play a vital role in the widespread adoption of precision management strategies.
How do I get started?
Determine historic rainfall amounts for the growing season.
Determine crop-available water in the soil.
Calculate water-driven yield potential: Moisture Driven Yield Potential = Soil Moisture + Historic In-season Precipitation = Total Potential Moisture minus 4” for the plant (6” for corn) = X leftover to make bushels depending on crop, soil texture and grower’s interest and ability to closely monitor crop.
Measure rainfall with a rain gauge or start playing with weather stations – they’re cheap, reliable and telematics is not the problem it used to be. Larger farms may need several stations. Trimble Ag Software’s Ag Premium Weather provides accumulated rainfall plus the historical average.
Adjust inputs based on how well water-driven yield potential is tracking to actual precipitation.
Blockchain is the latest buzzword in many business sectors today, and agriculture is no exception. A transparent and secure digital ledger system that allows two parties to conduct a transaction without the need for a trusted intermediary, blockchain captured headlines as the digital backbone of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.
In recent months it has gained further attention as businesses explore ways to leverage blockchain technology to save money, improve transparency and reduce human error.
As technology pundits speculate on how blockchain will be a game-changer, business leaders are looking for ways to tap into the technology.
“I’m very excited about this,” says Prakash Iyer, Senior Vice President of Software Architecture and Strategy with Trimble Inc. “It’s going to define a whole new paradigm of building applications — not just blockchain applications, but how you apply blockchain to transactional applications, settlement applications or food traceability applications.”
Iyer is leading the charge at Trimble to identify key ways that blockchain can be incorporated into various aspects of the global technology company, which develops transformational technology for sectors such as construction, geospatial, transportation and agriculture.
He says the real opportunity lies in early development of global industry standards that will guide the long-term adoption of blockchain.
“The way blockchain evolved, there’s really no agreed-upon standard,” Iyer explains. “We could play a leading role by helping to define that standard. It’s about showing thought leadership — because this is not just a technology play, it’s more of a business play, and a collaborative business play.”
The goal would be to create an ecosystem with key industry leaders, including customers and business partners both inside and outside the Trimble fold, to identify challenges and set industry standards. “Our success will be defined by how well we can collaborate and create that ecosystem of players and bring those people together.”
In addition to leading industry collaboration and standardization around blockchain, Iyer identified two other key areas of focus:
1. Agriculture Transactions
The first and most obvious application of blockchain technology is in any transaction that requires a trusted third party, such as an organization that provides the security and verification for digital transactions. (In other words, instead of needing a bank or some other institution to verify a money transfer, you could use blockchain to cut out the middleman.)
“It offers open-ledger trust and transparency,” says Iyer. “So you would no longer need a third party for that.”
Companies have already implemented this in the grain trade, most notably Louis Dreyfus Co. selling soybeans to China in what was billed as the first agricultural commodity trade using blockchain.
Specifically for Trimble, which sells food traceability software under the banner HarvestMark and Trimble Ag Software, Iyer is investigating areas where blockchain could be used to track fresh produce.
“I see this as a much broader application than food traceability,” he notes. “It could be applied anywhere provenance is involved, where you’re tracking origin to destination. There are some real problems in supply-chain management right now that could hugely benefit from being able to track exactly what happened from Point A to Point B.”
Bob Wold agrees. The World Wide Director of Engineering for Trimble’s Agriculture Division says blockchain technology could significantly raise the bar when it comes to transparency and integrity across the food supply chain.
“Imagine a world where every meter of land is put into this public ledger,” Wold says. “If you’re a custom applicator, you report what you did. If you’re an agronomist who did some scouting, your reports are associated with that land’s ID. This data follows the product all the way to the end consumer, and it can’t be tampered with.”
2. Land Ownership and Surveying
The second key opportunity is in the area of land ownership and land surveying.
“Today, you could do all the measurements and then five years later go to the county office and see that the records have changed,” says Iyer. “Blockchain makes that immutable so it can not be altered, and that’s a value-add.”
Reducing human error in paperwork and accounting is one of the greatest advantages of blockchain, especially where it relates to the production, handling, treatment and transportation of perishable food.
The benefits in transparency further increase as sensors begin reporting data into the blockchain. “You’re not taking anyone’s word for it, so it brings transparency and integrity,” says Iyer.
In the end, Iyer and Wold agree that the potential is significant, but the first step is establishing consistency and standardization.
“Consider all the different systems and data models we have in agriculture today,” notes Wold. “While blockchain can be the ledger, we still have a strong need to start standardizing our data models.”
According to Iyer, Trimble is well positioned to lead that charge.
Water is one of the biggest factors of determining crop yield on farms today. And while farmers often feel at the mercy of Mother Nature, there are many effective strategies we can leverage to help turn the tables on soil moisture problems and manage available water to hit top yields.
One of the industry’s top water experts says that by dialing in a ‘whole-farm water management strategy’, farmers can:
Improve crop yields by as much as 30 percent in Year One
Improve nutrient availability and absorption by having a more developed root zone
Significantly reduce field compaction and soil erosion
Greatly improve the farm’s chances of having a more consistent crop year after year.
“Water is the most critical input on the farm today — and it’s one that many farmers struggle to properly manage,” says Josh Shuler, a product manager with Trimble Agriculture who specializes in water management. “But at the end of the day, all other input decisions should hinge on how it is being managed.”
Shuler describes water as the scarcest nutrient in dry-land agriculture today. Yet, it’s also the most under-managed across all of agriculture today, regardless of its availability. “Even if you aren’t growing in a semi-arid, or sub-humid region, water is the most critical input, and many farmers struggle to understand the true impact the lack of water management can have on their operation,” Shuler says. “All other input decisions should hinge on how water is managed.”
For most crops, it takes anywhere from 4-20 acre-inches of water just to grow the crop to full, mature size. For corn, it takes about 0.14 acre-inches (approx. 4000 gal) of water per bushel over the entire growing season. To put that in perspective, a 250-bushel corn crop requires nearly 35 acre-inches of water (or about 992,000 gallons per acre) to reach full its full nutrient-limited potential. Every inch of water beyond this goes toward increasing your yield to it’s ultimate hybrid and/or nutrient-supplied limit
However, as with any crop input, water must be in the proper proportion and available at the right stage of development for maximum potential yields. Too much, or too little, water during these critical developmental phases can result in significantly reduced yields, even if the total water supply across the growing season, and all your other input decisions were right on the money.
Precipitation, irrigation and the water-holding capacity of your soil all contribute to the available water tally for your crops, and thus your ultimate yields. In this blog, Shuler is going to focus on some of the less understood factors: field topography, soil type, soil fertility, and water availability (soil water holding capacity).
First let’s talk about a field’s varied topography. Having an accurate survey and representation of your farmland topography is an invaluable tool. Steep slopes where erosion can deprive you of valuable topsoil, or depressions where ponding occurs, are obvious red flags, but there are other subtle shifts in topography that can be just as detrimental to your crops’ potential — and severely limit your yields as well. Dense and thorough land surveys using GPS tools, like WM-Survey, with precision RTK accuracy, are absolutely essential to identifying all steep slopes, subtle and substantial rises and low spots, and other subtle features where action needs to be taken to improve crop yields.
Keep in mind that not all action needs to be extreme to remedy these features. Some are much easier than you think and the cost of the doing the work can be made back in as little as a single season. Most farmers over-estimate the cost of rectification and under-estimate the overall impact to their bottom-line those features, left undisturbed, really are. Often, the most effective approach to maximizing your ROI in this investment is to correct the sub-surface water table and the surface run-off effectively. It is very likely going to require at least a significant percentage of both activities to set up the most consistent yields possible.
Whether your soil is heavy sand, silt, clay, or some combination thereof, its composition greatly affects its ability to retain moisture and make it available to the planted crop. Clay soils are excellent at holding water, but they are also heavy and sticky not good at allowing excess water to move through quickly. Sandy soils are the opposite. They drain and percolate well due to their high hydraulic conductivity, but lack the ability to store any real quantity of moisture.
The appropriate spacing of tile throughout the entire field is mandatory to achieve adequate drainage and produce more consistent yields. If they are too far apart for that soil type, you cannot control the water table effectively and will have wet spots in between the runs; too close together and you waste money on excess tile and installation costs that weren’t necessary.
Water can have a significant impact on soil fertility throughout the year. Heavy rain events, or over-irrigation, can cause significant erosion and wash away not only the thin layer of topsoil, but the precious organic matter and nutrients within it. Most of the organic matter present in any soil is found in that thin layer of topsoil and its loss directly reduces nutrient availability and a soil’s overall fertility… thus your yields.
Proper water management system designs, layout, spacing, and tile sizing needs to factor in large rain events during the two most crucial times of year, planting and harvest. Both of these critical time windows are already very short in some regions and the potential in lost yields can easily justify the investment in a complete water management system with little more than calculating what value buying back those crucial few days that you lose nearly every year really is in dollars and cents.
Nitrogen and phosphorus are two of the three most important nutrients your crop needs to meet its potential. They are also the two nutrients most susceptible to leaching due to water movement through the soil. Nitrates readily dissolve and drain to depths well below where plant roots can reach them if the water level remains high during the first 4-8 weeks of growth when the roots stop going deeper once they hit good water and nutrients. Phosphorus also leeches and moves downward in sandy soil. To combat this, a good understanding of soil composition and a good solid water management strategy are required to ensure that all of your other input decisions can help your crop consistently achieve its full potential year after year
Drainage systems are invaluable during spring when water is so abundant it can threaten new plantings and even your ability to plant during that small prime window. They’re also extremely important during the fall when you need dry crop conditions for a timely harvest.
During the hotter, drier months of the summer, however, nature doesn’t always cooperate by providing enough water during that crucial period of crop fill to achieve viable yields, and that tile system in your field become even more valuable and extremely important for maximum profits. With the addition of controlled drainage structures, you can have positive control of the water table throughout the field.
Utilizing water control gates can turn your traditional tile drainage system into a water retention system that keeps your water table at the appropriate level for the current crop stage. This type of system allows you to grow a crop that is more drought tolerant and less susceptible to common issues in wetter climates like stalk rot and other diseases that affect stalk and ear health and pest pressure.
With all these factors potentially affecting your yields, it’s easy to see why proper water management is the solid foundation of every successful farm. Whether it’s too much, not enough, or its in the wrong place, water management impacts every grower in the world.
Want to learn more? Find more resources on water management here or check out our free on-demand webinars, video tutorials, and eBooks here.
The agriculture industry frequently ends up in the spotlight when it comes to climate change. And it makes sense, when you consider that globally, our food system is responsible for approximately a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Economic Forum.
But people need food, and producing that food comes with a significant carbon footprint. Experts say this footprint will continue to grow to meet the food demands of a world population that could tip 9 billion people by 2050.
Addressing this problem requires ingenuity, and the ability to balance environmental impact with the reality that farmers today and in the future must remain competitive. After all, true sustainability means economic, as well as environmental.
Some jurisdictions are looking at ways to reward farmers, financially, for incorporating more sustainable farming practices (even though farmers often argue that as stewards of the land, they’re already taking such measures — their livelihood, after all, depends on healthy soil and productive cropland).
But in order to take this initiative from theory to reality, governments need policies that allow farmers to generate and get paid for carbon credits, which can then be sold to large emitters to reduce their carbon footprint.
Alberta, Canada has just such a policy in place, and is quickly becoming a beacon for progressive governments around the world looking to set up a program that encourages sustainability on farms, and rewards farmers who already have such practices in place.
Understanding Your Farm’s Carbon Footprint
Agriculture emits three greenhouse gases:
Carbon dioxide (CO2)
Nitrous oxide (N2O)
For the purposes of this blog focused on farming, we’ll set aside methane, which is primarily the result of livestock operations.
Just by its nature, farming produces high emissions through the basic act of growing food on land. Tillage of fields releases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide that has been stored in the soil. Farming also uses fossil fuels and fertilizers. This isn’t news to anyone.
Farmers have been adopting management practices such as conservation tillage and a greater focus on crop rotation selection for many years now. In no-till farming, unharvested crop stalks and other plant matter is left behind in the field. This stored carbon sinks into the soil instead of being stirred up and released into the atmosphere, which reduces GHG emissions, improves soil health, and cuts down on fuel needed to harvest the stalks.
Nitrous oxide, a byproduct of nitrogen fertilizer, is another key greenhouse gas. It causes specific environmental concerns. If fertilizer over-applied or applied incorrectly, nitrous oxide can either volatilize into the atmosphere or leach off the land, polluting nearby water sources, or public or private lands.
Efficient and responsible use of nitrogen fertilizer has been a key topic in conversations where ag and the environment intersect. As a result, government and regulatory agencies are implementing rules to improve nitrogen management. For example, Alberta’s program leverages the internationally recognized Nitrous Oxide Emission Reduction Protocol (NERP). It outlines best input management practice known as the 4Rs:
Expanding the Alberta Advantage to All Farmers
Alberta farmers have been tapping into a carbon credit program since 2007, when the Canadian province brought in North America’s first multi-sectoral greenhouse gas (GHG) regulatory framework. Since that time, Trimble’s Carbon Credit program, which was folded into the company as part of its acquisition of Agri-Trend in 2016, has sold over 3.5 million tonnes of agricultural carbon offsets, returning a hefty $40 million plus into the pockets of Alberta farmers.
Program manager Charlie O’Donnell says it’s a great example of how governments can work with farmers to help achieve international climate change mitigation initiatives. It’s a win for farmers, who get paid for the carbon credits they earn by using sustainable practices; it’s a win for large emitters who can buy those credits to reduce their emissions, and it’s a win for the planet.
“We’re excited to be one of the first jurisdictions to get this kind of a program going,” says O’Donnell. “I take every chance I get to share our experience with government officials in other provinces and countries who want to use our program as a blueprint.”
O’Donnell says farmers have never been more excited about joining the program, and it’s clear why. The value of a carbon credit is $30 per metric tonne (or CO2e), effective January 1, 2019. This represents a 50% increase over previous years and is expected to increase 66% by 2022.
Consumers are hungry for information about where their food came from, and experts predict the trend will continue to grow.
A recent survey by the International Food Information Council, and a similar study by Nielsen, show that consumers want more information on how the food they eat was produced. They’re also more likely to choose brands that make this information readily available. This tendency is particularly strong in younger demographics.
For farmers, the trend has widespread implications. It’s not enough to grow healthy food — they need a verifiable paper trail proving it.
“Today, there are more government regulations and reporting requirements that farmers need to comply with,” says Gwen Byard, product manager with Trimble Ag Business Solutions. “Therefore, farmers need to have confidence that their farm records showing where the work was done, how it was done, are accurate.”
According to one ag industry expert, accurate and consistent data is a significant challenge facing farmers today.
“If a farmer is working with inaccurate data it causes a lot of frustration,” says Michael Casey, general manager at the Australian ag dealership Vantage NSW. “Even if it’s a small inefficiency, it’s frustrating. And the cumulative effect year to year can be huge.”
Casey has seen farmers increase their spending on new technologies in recent years, specifically on hardware and software related to accuracy and correction services. But given the complexity of these systems, especially on large farms, and the inevitability of some level of human error, Casey says a small inconsistency or inaccuracy can have huge implications.
Consider this: Two operators are working the same field. They’re both running vehicles equipped with guidance and steering systems to help accurately monitor and map the field information in real time. However, there’s a discrepancy in the guidance lines they’re using. The result? Wasted time (and, ultimately, money) and inaccurate field records.
But there’s a solution in sight, one Byard has spent many days working towards.
“The more automated a process is, the more you can avoid errors,” she says. Accurate data is crucial when it’s being used for certification or compliance, in the case of food traceability, but it’s also becoming more important for the financial stability of farms today. As precision ag practices become the norm, farm managers are making quick, data-driven decisions in real time in order to be as efficient, precise, and cost-effective as possible across the entire operation. If the data being used to make these decisions is flawed, productivity and profitability wane.
“When you’re making these quick decisions in real time, you want to make sure you have the right data in the right place at the right time,” says Byard. The solution, she says, lies in automatic data syncing. A new Trimble Ag Software feature known as AutoSync™, for example, helps solve this problem by working in the background to automatically sync data across Trimble Ag displays and Trimble Ag Software.
“AutoSync lets you enter data once and then it’s automatically shared,” explains Byard. “You can also correct data in one place and the correction goes everywhere. Data is only entered once and it’s shared quickly and easily, so other operators won’t create their own copies and have all of these duplicates.”
Back in Australia, Casey says the new software feature has been getting rave reviews from farmers.
“Their first reaction is excitement,” he says. “People have struggled with this issue for a long time so they immediately see the benefit.”