Cotton farmers: variable-rate technology profitable

Variable-rate technology is making money for cotton producers, according to a 2005 survey of cotton farmers in 11 Southeastern states.

The survey was funded by Cotton Incorporated to determine the status of adoption of precision farming technologies. Surveys were mailed to 12,000 cotton farmers in January 2005. About 10 percent, 1,215, of the surveys were returned. Of the respondents, 39 percent, or 473 farmers, used at least one site-specific information gathering technique.

The results of the survey, which are preliminary, were presented at the 2006 Beltwide Cotton Conferences, in San Antonio, Texas, by Roland Roberts, professor of agricultural economics, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn.

The survey indicated that most farmers who have adopted precision farming technologies continue to use them. Sixty-two percent of farmers who adopted satellite images continue to use the technology, 88 percent of adopters continue to use aerial photos, while 80 percent of adopters of digital mapping continue to use the technology.

Only 19 percent of farmers who have used yield monitoring with GPS have since abandoned it. The survey indicated that 55 percent have abandoned yield monitoring without GPS. But this may be misleading because some who have abandoned yield monitoring without GPS, may have done so by adding a GPS to their yield monitor.

Farmers who have abandoned precision farming technology are generally older, and have the same or less education than those who continue to use the technology. Generally, those who abandon the technology have lower incomes. But those who abandoned grid sampling and management zone sampling had higher incomes.

Respondents paid an average of $4 an acre for technical advice associated with yield monitoring and GPS, $6 an acre for technical advice with grid soil sampling, about $9 an acre for technical advice with zone soil sampling and $4 an acre for technical advice with COTMAN.

Sixty-two percent of farmers who adopted yield monitoring with GPS use it to identify management zones, while 74 percent used yield monitor information for fertility and lime decisions. Fifty-two percent used aerial photos and satellite images to develop management zones, while 48 percent used them to pinpoint drainage problems.

“We found that 76 percent of farmers who had used yield monitors found the information to be of value to them,” Roberts said. “They placed the value at around $21 per acre a year. Eighty-nine percent of farmers who used guidance systems were satisfied with the systems and placed a value on it of about $12 per acre per year.”

Fifty-two percent of farmers said they had observed a yield increase from using variable-rate technology, while 46 percent observed no increase in yield. Three percent observed a decrease in yield. The average increase in yield was 115 pounds per acre. The yield decrease observed was an average of 225 pounds per acre. The weighted average of all respondents is a 107-pound perceived increase in yield.

Profit was the No. 1 reason why respondents adopt precision farming, followed by environmental benefits. However, 58 percent of farmers said that they had not observed any improvement in environmental quality from using variable-rate technology.

The survey said that 28 percent of farmers who adopted grid soil sampling later abandoned it. Surprisingly, 63 percent of farmers who adopted COTMAN, a plant mapping program, abandoned it. That, too, could be misleading, according to Roberts. “It’s computer software that allows farmers to make decisions. Even if they abandon the computer software, they could still use many of the principles and practices used in COTMAN.”

The survey indicated that farmers get most of their information on precision farming technology from other farmers, followed by university and Extension personnel. The lowest rated usefulness of information came from the Internet. Eighty percent of the respondents said that university and Extension should provide more information about precision agriculture.

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