Geographic information systems use various types of technology to map a part of a farmer’s field in some way, shape or form, but GIS are evolving into more than just diagnostic tools. New systems have the capability to manage farm data, improve traceability and offer valuable markeing advantages for producers.
Using various technologies like global positioning systems, satellite imagery, remote sensing and topographical maps, geographic information systems collect information, which is then used to break up a producer’s field into separate management zones. “We basically profile each area and try to decipher what the productivity potential is and match the fertility to that,” says Wade Barnes of Farmers Edge, a precision agriculture consulting company with offices across the Canadian Prairies.
Grid sampling has been a common form of data collection for analyzing yield potential for many potato producers, but other systems are fast catching up.
Electrical conductivity soil mapping is a technical process that most farmers currently access through consultants like Delta Ag Services of Portage la Prairie, Man., which offers growers a tailored potato agronomy program. The company uses extremely accurate, real time kinematic satellite navigation and a Veris 3100 EC soil mapping system to provide topographical maps for drainage as well as soil properties of the field. These two data sources are correlated to determine the amount of variability in the soil along with the source of that variability.
Most potato growers already use variable rate technology to apply fertilizer and other inputs. With the application of GIS technologies, like EC soil mapping, producers are seeing improvements in tuber quality and yield, and more uniform growth across the field.
Targeting Fertility Needs
Sheldon Wiebe, a potato grower located near MacGregor, Man., initially contacted Delta Ag because he wanted to use EC soil mapping to help solve salinity issues in some of his fields. He now uses the system on his sandier soils, as well as on some of his other crops, to better target his fertility needs. “We have seen a huge benefit, with more consistent quality and better yields—it just evens the field out,” says Wiebe.
Common GIS Technologies
Soil (or Composite) Points
A number of soil sampling points are established in a field using map or GPS coordinates. The points are sampled every year to build up a picture of soil fertility and yield potential.
Various types of technology are used to collect data and the information is attributed to specific points in the field. Soil samples are taken every 2 to 2.5 acres, and each grid point is marked using GPS coordinates. Results and recommendations are assigned to each two-acre plot.
Electrical Conductivity Soil Mapping
An electrical conductivity reading is taken at intervals as predetermined by an agrologist. Each reading is attributed to a GPS coordinate and gives in-depth data about soil composition and textural differences within the soil profile.
Satellite images are used to accurately show the soil variability within each segment of a field. The soil of these areas is then tested to get an accurate assessment of overall health and potential yields of the segment of the field. Regular satellite images throughout the season monitor the health of the crop, helping to catch potential yield-limiting problems early on, such as nutrient deficiencies, weed competition and insect damage.
The data he built up provided him with a starting point from which to implement other measures, like improved irrigation systems. “Once we found out what we were dealing with in terms of variability across the field, we were able to introduce other solutions, like putting our nitrogen through the pivots, which has given us a huge benefit. Our yields have increased by 30 per cent over the last five years as a result of the things we have implemented. The technology has helped us identify and work from our most limiting factor and then build on that,” says Wiebe.
Satellite imagery is another popular GIS that producers use to accurately assess their fertility needs. Barnes says it’s equally important for producers to understand what he calls the “zone management methodology,” in other words, why one area of the field responds differently than another area. He believes being able to detect the variability in soil types across different areas of the field makes it easier to match fertility needs to productivity, which isn’t always just about yield.
“When a grower wants to go into precision agriculture with potatoes, it’s a little bit different from someone going into it with small grains,” says Barnes. “In small grains we worry about the amount of efficiency we get out of the fertilizer and, generally, that translates into extra yield. In the potato business we have to monitor the quality aspect much more closely and just putting lots of fertilizer on isn’t necessarily the best route to go.”
In a trial conducted by Farmers Edge in a sandy area of an otherwise highly productive field, under normal irrigation patterns they found when the field was fertilized at the same rate the tubers in the sandy area were irregular and of poor quality. When they reduced the fertility in the sandy areas, although the potatoes didn’t yield as well, they were much more uniform in shape and of better quality.
Advantages of Telematics
The future of GIS, however, is already out there, although few farmers realize its potential, as yet. Most tractors being built today incorporate telematics, the newest component of GIS technology. Telematics is an advanced system that allows data, concerning all aspects of farm operations, to be collected, stored and remotely accessed in real time, whenever it’s needed. Barnes is already offering this data management service to his clients. “In 10 years this will be huge,” he predicts. “Every large farm will be doing this.”
Telematics technology has the capability to streamline many aspects of farm management as well as simplify the whole process of implementing GIS data into production—something that many producers find frustrating. “Potato producers, especially, are already up to their eyeballs in management issues because they often have a lot of hired help,” says Barnes. “They see the value of precision agriculture but they can’t have a $200,000 tractor and a $150,000 planter sitting idle while someone is trying to get the computer set up. What we can do now, thanks to the RTK cellular networks that are out there, is email the maps we generate directly to the tractor, go in and remotely take control of the monitor and fix the settings, and as the tractor is applying the inputs we can log all that data back to our management system.”
Telematics offers huge advantages for processes such as traceability. “The farmer can access all the data, from start to finish, on what has happened in his fields,” says Barnes. “That includes information on pesticides, fungicides, fertility, seeding, irrigation, tonnage coming off—whatever he needs.”
Another benefit Barnes sees in the future is using this sophisticated data management system as a tool to secure carbon offsets, something that is already being done on an experimental basis by one of his Russian clients.
“We have a large farm in Russia growing for an end-use food company in Western Europe, which wants to see weekly reports on what has been going on in the fields that they access through our data management system,” says Barnes. “These companies are switching from palm oil to canola oil in their production process and as the carbon footprint is much less for canola oil, especially in a no-till system, if that data is documented there is a huge value for them.”
Barnes predicts the day will come when Canadian producers may benefit from this capability. “We have a carbon component in our data management system that calculates the carbon offset,” says Barnes, “and we have a contract with a large final emitter to buy the offsets. So the farmer is going to get paid for doing this and you are going to see more and more of this in the future.”