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The Return of Variable Rate

If you were a farmer back in the 90s you’ll remember exactly what variable rate was. Or rather, what is was supposed to be. But it never really materialized. As the world moved through the past 20 years, dragging technology with it, we never really got to the point where the everyday farmer could invest in the technology to make variable rate farming a possibility.

Of course, nowadays the cost of land, supplies and man power is constantly rising so even less farmers are entertaining the idea of buying expensive tech to improve their farms… especially when they know the tech will undoubtedly be upgraded and replaced with a better (and more expensive) version next year anyway.

To put it simply, variable rate farming was the idea that with precise measurements you can accurately calculate the amount of produce (whether that be seeds, fertilizer, water etc.) that needs to be applied to specific areas of your fields. Hence why it’s so variable.

Over the past several years however, precision agriculture has made a comeback (just scroll back on our blog to see how much we’ve covered it!) so perhaps it is again time to consider taking on variable rate farming yourself.

How to DIY Variable Rate Farming

To start with, you need to decide between having a map based system or a sensor based system:

Map Based System – this is a pre-planned way of going about your farming. You use data you’ve been collecting for years, planning it out like a map and using it to make informed decisions for your farming.

Sensor Based System – this system uses real time data, which requires a fair bit of tech and constant monitoring. Unless you’ve got masses of storage space to store all the data you’ll be gathering, you’ll need to have cloud space, plus all your tech needs to be maintained and monitored to ensure its producing accurate real time data. If you want to go hard core with variable rate farming, this is the system for you.

If you’ve not got a huge budget to spend on tech, you’ll probably be better off opting for a map based system. On the other hand, if you’ve got a decent budget to get through and not much data from the last decade of farming, you’ll have more success with a sensor based system.

Once you’ve decided on a system you’ll need to start setting up. Start with the sensors and data recording devices (you’ll need them for both systems, as you’ll need to record the results of your efforts whether it’s in real time or not), implement them in your fields and plan out how your tech will work for you. Here’s a few ideas:

Sol Chip Comms. These are fantastically versatile sensors that are easy on your budget and can be placed anywhere and everywhere. They can measure anything from temperature to soil moisture to nutrient levels.

Drones. We love them! A drone with good sensors can do more than just track out how large your fields are and give you a birds-eye view. Did you know they can also measure soil temperature from up there in the sky?

Now you’ve got your measuring tech in place, switch it on and get recording. Ideally you should start implementing changes as soon as you have enough data (which should have been yesterday if you’ve got a map based system) but we know that’s probably not realistic for every farmer.

So, this is where you take a break, get back to farm management and work hard for another year, knowing that your sensors are capturing every second. This also gives you some time to save up the funds to purchase the tech needed to make changes to you farm.

Yes, we know that the goal of variable rate farming is to be so precise you reduce waste and save money, but first you might need to spend money to make those precise changes. Here are a few examples:

Drip irrigation – through an underground network of pipes or material tubes, you can literally monitor how you are irrigating your fields drip by drip. There are some very efficient systems out there, one in particular that maintains a steady moisture level of the soil without need for any maintenance. If your data shows a consistent state of arid or dry soil, this could be a very useful system to implement.

Precision planters – there are drones that can fire seeds into the soil from high in the sky, ensuring absolutely perfect distance between crops as well as optimal soil depth! This is pretty crazy, but we think you’ll find the results to be far more accurate than your current seeder methods. If you’ve not got the resources for precision planters, at least search out our seeder maintenance checklist to ensure it’s in the best shape possible. You can find it on our blog.

With your data, you should start to see where your farm is lacking, and where you need to focus your efforts. The more data you have, the more accurate you can be as you’ll be able to remove erroneous data and mistakes that could lead you down the wrong path. Don’t forget that your data will be variable to that of your neighbours. Avoid making assumptions; don’t start applying data from one field to another unless you’ve been recording data on both! This is all about being precise, no guesses and no estimations.

Depending on how sophisticated your analysing system is, you may even find that your computer can input the fertilisers you currently buy (or are considering buying) so it can calculate where best to spread them. Following the data and numbers is usually pretty fool proof (there’s little room for human error) but if you’re unsure, always start with a test patch first.

Don’t stop measuring and recording data at any point in the year. Even when if your fields are empty and barren, still keep recording and measuring. The last thing you want is a surprise when you turn your recording equipment back on at the start of the new season!

One last tip: always back up your data. If you don’t want to pay a subscription for cloud storage, keep a hard back up on servers and memory hard drives. You can buy these fairly cheap as computers are ever getting larger.

The more data you collect and the more you get used to evaluating and using it wisely, the more your farm will profit and bloom. Good luck!

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