Precision agriculture means less is more for irrigators

Technology has boosted yields while cutting both water use and inputs, says University of Lethbridge survey

The vast majority of irrigators have adopted precision ag technology and more will follow as costs fall, says University of Lethbridge economist Lorraine Nicol.
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Very few studies have examined precision agriculture in Canada, but a new one from University of Lethbridge researchers has put some numbers on the benefits.

And they’re big — both in terms of reducing inputs and in boosting yields.

Last fall, economists Lorraine Nicol and Chris Nicol surveyed irrigators in the Taber Irrigation District and found 81 per cent of them have implemented some measure of precision agriculture. There is a high satisfaction rate with the technologies, and many who utilize them plan to adopt more in the future.

But the two academics also dug deeper into the results of adopting those technologies.

“We really wanted to examine the impact on the resources that they are using because irrigation water is critical,” said Lorraine Nicol. “Any efficiencies are important to their bottom line but also to the ecological health of water in the region.”

Irrigation water use in general has declined by 24 per cent on average because of the implementation of precision agriculture. The study also showed a 14 to 24 per cent reduction in fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide use.

“It all means a very good outcome from an ecological point of view,” said Nicol.

Although a federal study looked at precision ag use in Western Canada, the University of Lethbridge study is the first to focus on strictly irrigators. Producers were asked to complete a questionnaire focusing on 20 precision ag technologies in three broad categories:

  • Basic technologies included auto steer technology, yield mapping, soil moisture monitoring, weather monitoring, variable-rate fertilizer and irrigation application, GPS soil sampling, and developing management zones.
  • Soil mapping techniques included terrain mapping/analysis, spatial variability of available water-holding capacity, electric conductivity mapping, satellite imagery, unmanned aerial vehicle mapping, and establishing field boundaries/low spots/unfarmable land.
  • Data management included studying/analyzing yield data, using hydrological modelling and forecasting to predict soil moisture status, developing dynamic water management zones, using precision agriculture data management software or services, using precision agriculture technology for records and analysis, and using precision agriculture for on-farm research.

Along with the water reduction and use of inputs, adopting precision ag practices also boosted yields and quality of crops, said Nicol.

“The survey showed under precision agriculture, crop yields have increased an average 20 per cent and yearly crop quality has increased by an average of 16 per cent,” she said.

The study not only looked at the level of adoption of these technologies and the results they produced, but also the motivation behind adopting these practices.

“Sure, there’s an economic bottom line, and they (irrigators) particularly are looking at reducing energy costs, reducing labour, and reducing machine time,” she said. “But we also found almost half of the respondents look at the environmental impact of what they are doing.”

So why aren’t 100 per cent taking this win-win-win approach to farming?

“The ones who haven’t adopted any precision agriculture have a small farm size, less than 2,000 acres,” said Nicol. “Their motivation not to (adopt) was the farm size and related to that was the cost of the technology.”

But this might change over time.

“I do say in my paper that the cost of technologies does tend to come down over time and farm size does tend to increase over time, so maybe those non-adopters will adopt in the future,” she said.

Nicol plans to repeat the study in two additional irrigation districts in Alberta. She also sees the value in repeating the survey in the Taber Irrigation District in the future to see if adoption continues to increase and what the effects are.

The advances in recent years have been enormous, said Nicol, adding the approach used when she did her first irrigation studies more than a decade ago now seem to be from another era.

“We were talking about touch and feel methods of farmers just going out and digging in the soil and feeling the soil and testing for moisture,” she said. “Those methods are very antiquated compared to now. It gives you a sense of how far we’ve come and how those technologies have really taken off.”

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