Higher Accuracy Results in Better Consistency, Stronger Profits

October 29, 2019

By Michael Bruno and Vivek Nadkarni 

Many farmers rely on positioning services to make accurate passes across their fields. Doing so ensures their passes are consistent, preventing overlaps and skips so they can be efficient with their time, land, and inputs. 

But with options for correction services varying from the sub-meter accuracy level down to mere centimeters, you may be wondering: How accurate is accurate enough? And when is higher accuracy worth the investment?

Risks of Low Accuracy: Lowered Profits

To answer that question, you need to consider the value of the crop you’re growing. The higher its values, the greater the need for higher accuracy.

For example, if a high-value crop like potatoes are nicked during harvest due to the farmer’s inaccurate combine, they will have to sell those potatoes for bulk, to be made into mashed potatoes, instead of selling them to the grocery store as complete potatoes. Because whole potatoes are worth more than those sold for bulk, the farmer has missed the opportunity to make the maximum profit off of those potatoes.

The Russells can attest to the importance of accuracy in growing potatoes. Due to increased seed and land rent prices, as well as an increase in spray passes, they could no longer afford to form beds without the help of correction services. They needed their potato beds to be precise as possible, as too narrow would result in yield loss — the potatoes would grow out of the beds, turn green and become unsaleable — while beds too wide would waste expensive land. So the family upgraded to EZ-Pilot Pro with the GFX-750 display and CenterPoint RTX Fast corrections, ensuring the rows are always straight and accurate.

Risks of Low Accuracy: Overlaps and Skips

Growers also need to consider the value of their inputs. Farmers with drip tape irrigation should use higher accuracy because if they rip their tape by driving in the wrong place, it can be an expensive repair.

Even if the cost of the input isn’t very high, over-application from inaccuracy can add up quickly. Overlaps during chemical and fertilizer applications are not only wasteful, but with certain pesticides you may end up burning the crop. Overlaps during planting increase the risk of plant overcrowding, and with certain crops, such as corn, this can make the plants compete against each other, reducing their yield potential.

There’s also a cost to skips — places in the field where the application was missed — because of lower accuracy. Your yields may be lowered from heavier weed pressure if there are skips during a herbicide application, or from nutrient deficiencies if they occurred during a fertilizer application. Skips during planting will also result in yield loss because you’ve missed the opportunity to grow more plants. While it may not sound like much, being a foot off every pass could add up to a full two rows in a field.

In either scenario, you’re experiencing a cost due to lower accuracy.

In cases where you have a lower value crop with lower input costs, like broad-acre crops, then lower accuracy may be sufficient. But considering that the cost of accuracy is relatively low compared to the cost of all your inputs, the upgrade may be worth it.

It’s also important not to overlook the value of soil. Soil compaction, which is caused by heavy wheel traffic, can lead to an estimated 10-20% yield loss, according to Iowa State University Extension. By keeping wheel traffic in the exact same spot every time, also known as controlled traffic or controlled tramlines, soil compaction is limited to those specific lines in the field and out of the soil where crops are grown.

Higher Accuracy Pays Off

To determine whether higher accuracy will pay off, you need to consider your farm’s profit margins, the volume of dollars flowing through your operation, and what impact even a small change to the efficiency of that money flow will have on your bottom line.

According to data from the USDA’s 2013 Agricultural Resource Management Survey, 69.3% of farms had operating profit margins of less than 10%, with 41.6% of midsize family farms (those with an annual gross cash farm income between $350,000 and $999,999) falling in that category.  

If you have low profit margins, squeezing another 50 cents or a dollar out of every $100 you spend by improving your positioning accuracy can increase your profitability by a significant amount.

Michael Bruno is the Market Intelligence Manager for Real-Time Networks and Services (RTNS) within Trimble’s Advanced Positioning Division.
Vivek Nadkarni is a product manager for GNSS receivers and guidance controllers in Trimble Agriculture.

Find the Right Accuracy for Your Farm

Trimble offers correction services that can fit the needs of any operation. Whether you’re looking for an affordable, mid-accuracy solution or the highest precision possible, we can help. For more information, contact your local reseller today.