Precision Farming: What is Precision Farming

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“Precision farming” is the new term coined for farming practices which were variously described as “prescription farming”, “site-specific” practices, “variable rate technology” etc previously (Chew, 1998). Notwithstanding the many connotations, the basic philosophy of precision farming is to measure and manage variabilities such as yield, soil, pest and weed across the fields (Larscheid et al. , 1997) in order to enhance efficiency in the management of agricultural practices in the cropping system for optimum productivity, product quality and economic returns, and minimise environmental impact and agricultural risk. It therefore prescribes applications of what are only required to achieve the particular goal(s) at various distinct points or sites (Chew, 1998) in sufficiently fine scale in the fields. It capitalises on the advent in information technology and engineering to attain its objectives.

The five core components or processes of precision farming (Blackmore and Larscheid, 1997) are:

  • Measuring variability
  • Analysing variability
  • Decision-making
  • Differential actions
  • Assessment of results

Measuring and analysing variability form the keystones of precision farming. They attempt to establish the permanent field characteristics that influence production and yield maps for as many years as possible (Blackmore and Larscheid, 1997). These characteristics or factors are recorded at precise locations over time to enable the study of spatial and temporal variabilities. The existence of these variabilities particularly yield and the understanding of them provide an opportunity for precision farming. In fact, if they do not exist then a uniform management system is both the cheapest and most effective management strategy and precision farming is redundant (McBratney and Taylor, 1999). In analysing variability, it is common to produce maps which show spatial trend, stability of the spatial characteristics such as yield and management (classified) zones for similar inputs.

Recording spatial data and plotting maps will be meaningless unless we can quickly retrieve the data and translate them into information and knowledge for use in improving the production system. This falls into the area of a decision support system (Goh et al. , 1997) which can incorporate inter alia crop models, artificial intelligence, data mining tools and information technology to examine whether variable actions in specific areas of the fields are warranted, match the local resources and agronomic practices with the soil properties, crop requirements etc and develop different strategies from the data for the management to choose and implement in the fields. However, it should be appreciated that not all variabilities can be managed efficiently or economically because they depend very much on the nature and magnitude of the variabilities (McBratney and Taylor, 1999).

The availability of geographical information system (GIS) and global positioning system (GPS) has enabled the quick production of maps for the management to locate the problem areas precisely in the fields for differential treatments. Variable rate applicators, machinery and technology have been used in many crops such as rice, wheat, corn, soybean and other crops to apply the prescribed treatments at each site (Chew, 1998). As the costs of equipment and technology decrease, this practice will eventually become available to farmers with low value or non-strategic crops like oil palm.

It is a wise management principle to always monitor and assess the results of agricultural practices against the tactical or strategic objectives and goals of the cropping system for further actions and if necessary, the whole processes of precision farming may repeat themself. In fact, McBratney and Taylor (1999) have conceptualised the above processes for a site-specific management system as a Precision Agriculture wheel as shown in Figure 3. They also point out that precision farming is a wheel and without one of the cogs it will not succeed.

Figure 3: The Precision Agriculture wheel: Components of a site-specific crop management (SSCM) system

Source: McBratney and Taylor (1999)

The philosophy and processes of precision farming have been made possible by the advent and recent affordability of several key technologies (Chew, 1998) such as:

  • Personal computers
  • GPS technology which reads signals continuously available from satellites enabling near pin-point horizontal and vertical accuracy
  • Remote sensing where satellite and aerial images are processed and correlated to crop characteristics
  • GIS technology which manages and displays spatial data and relationships
  • Variable rate application equipment with sensors and GPS to respond to field and soil variables.

Apart from hardware, the development in information technology is also essential towards the success of precision farming. The technology is needed to control the sensors for variable rate application, datalogging and transforming data into knowledge as discussed earlier.

It is increasingly recognised that precision farming is a cropping system and therefore, cannot be separated from the management system and philosophy of the farm. This is because precision farming involves capital expenditure, re-training of personnel including workers, and human perception and acceptance of new practices. McBratney and Taylor (1999) state that the concepts of Total Quality Management (TQM) and Vertical Integration (VI) in the agricultural sector are central to the precision farming philosophy. They further contend that “a farmer is concerned not only with quality at the farm gate but also the quality at the point of sale and how his product meets consumer demands. This will bring premiums and also will probably be used for environmental auditing”.

With the potential benefits, it is not surprising that interest in precision farming is now sweeping the world with many research centers being set-up to advance the technologies and introduce them to the local farming systems. Can we learn from them and apply these new tools to our advantage in the oil palm plantations?