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The biggest component of Bronsch’s consulting is variable rate irrigation (VRI). (Photo: Janet Kanters)

Convincing the Unconvinced on Precision Agriculture

An Alberta agronomic consultant hopes his “data driven agriculture” proves an easier-to-adopt twist on precision agriculture.

Precision agriculture is cutting edge, high-tech and full of potential. At least some western Canadian potato farmers, however, see it as overwhelming, costly, frustrating, and/or difficult to implement.

If you look past the hype and excitement surrounding precision agriculture, you’ll find a group of farmers who have tried it and quit, or who were turned off the concept before they ever started.

Jeff Bronsch, an agronomic consultant in Taber, Alta., understands farmers concerns and is building a business around changing their minds about precision farm management.

Bronsch is the president of Sunrise AG and the mastermind behind a new way of thinking about and implementing precision agriculture, something he terms “data driven agriculture” (DDA).

“What we wanted to do is rebrand precision agriculture for today’s farmers. We don’t want to call it ‘precision agriculture 2.0.’ We want to focus on the fundamentals, which is capturing the kind of data that will help a producer make better and timelier decisions, directly impacting their bottom line,” he says.

“There are many decisions that need to be made in a crop production year. Having quality data available to inform those decisions can make a measurable difference, not just in yield but in a farm’s economics.”

For many farmers, the biggest obstacle to precision agriculture is frustration with what it used to be. But things have changed.

“The whole premise of precision agriculture came to light in the early 1990s. Back then it was a very convoluted technical solution. A lot of growers tried it but the equipment wasn’t there. Even spreading fertilizer was a challenge. It was costly to deploy on a farm, you had to make a bunch of investments, and there was very little information on actual benefit or returns,” says Bronsch. “So, there are many farmers out there who might be turned off because of their prior experiences, or because they talked to a neighbour or friend who tried it unsuccessfully.”

While precision agriculture might not be new, technology has now caught up to the concept. Today, almost every piece of farm equipment comes GPS enabled, software platforms are accessible and user-friendly, and the return-on-investment of capturing quality field-level data to improve decision-making is clear.

Still, at the end of the day, technology is only one component of precision agriculture. Precision tools, no matter how high-tech, can’t offer farming benefits in and of themselves. The success of precision farming depends on a farmer’s ability to gather and make sense of many puzzle pieces of information, and then implement sound management decisions based on that data and analysis. In many cases, this demands ongoing reliance on an agronomic consultant, something Bronsch is entirely opposed to.

“A lot of producers are reluctant to involve someone like myself in their production system because they don’t want to be dependent on outside help. My goal is to work myself out of a job: I want to educate producers not only on why data driven agriculture makes sense, but also on how to do it themselves,” says Bronsch. “If I don’t do that, it’s kind of like asking a guy to buy a tractor and then telling him he needs to come in to the dealership for a new key every time he wants to start that tractor. It doesn’t make any sense.

Bronsch’s goal is to “flatten out” a field’s potato quality, maturity and yield variation through holistically-focused data-driven agriculture (DDA). Given that potato rows are arrow straight from one end of the field to the other, variable field conditions mean mixed quality tubers enter storage. Not only do lower quality and lower yield cost significant dollars right out of the ground, they can limit bonuses and premiums. And, mixed quality and maturity can cause significant storage risk.

“A lot of the traditional dryland precision movement has been based on the assumption that areas of the field that don’t grow much won’t ever grow much, so a producer shouldn’t waste inputs. Our focus is asking why that area of the field doesn’t produce, and then coming up with solutions to solve that. In the past, it was easier to acquire additional land to offset the poorer areas. With today’s land prices, it doesn’t make sense to just write off the low-producing areas.”

Reducing a field’s production variability typically starts with yield mapping, topographical mapping, and analysis of the health and physical properties of the soil, including its pH, salinity, nutrient levels, biological activity, conductivity, etc. Then, depending on the land’s specific needs, Bronsch works with the producer to bring low-producing areas up to better production levels through fertility and seeding adjustments, and through bigger, longer-term solutions such as drainage tiles, etc.

The biggest component of Bronsch’s consulting is variable rate irrigation (VRI). On dinner plate-flat fields, VRI can offer limited returns. However, in fields with any topographical variability, VRI can “flatten out” moisture imbalances.

“There’s approximately 7,000 [to] 7,500 irrigation pivots in Alberta. Probably 30 per cent – 2,000 of them – would benefit from VRI,” says Bronsch. “It’s a big mental shift for some producers, but the economics are simple: if you fertilize and plant for a 20 ton crop but only water for a 15 ton crop, you’ll get a 15 ton crop. Water has the single biggest impact on quality and storability.”

While producers tend to be interested in the economics and love talking about the potential, Bronsch says it is likely to take more than gentle persuasion to convince many to make the leap into DDA.

“Everyone loves the story that what we’re doing is the leading edge of a new way of thinking. But the reality for a lot of people is that they almost need a critical event to get on board with change. If the government was suddenly to say that growers need to cut water usage by 30 per cent, guys would suddenly say that VRI makes sense. But many are pretty comfortable where they are right now, and asking them to change means asking them to step out of that comfort area.

“But it’s coming. Just wait and see,” he adds.

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