Technology used to spray fields with fertilizer and crop protection products.

Sustainable Farm Technology: The Modern Twist on an Ancient Profession

Written by OSU student Jane Hulse

Humans have been farming for thousands of years, but the way we farm now looks a lot different than it has in the past. With modern innovations like precision agriculture, farmers can now grow more food more efficiently and sustainably. For example, today’s soybean farmers grow 46% more soybeans using 40% less land, 33% less water and 35% less energy than they did 30 years ago, according to this report from the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance.

Soybean field.

Precision agriculture is a farm management practice where farmers use data and modern technology to determine exactly what their crops need to grow. This practice benefits both farmers and the environment because it means less resources, such as water, fertilizer and pesticides, are used. For example, a farmer can determine if only a very small area of the field needs fertilizer and won’t go to the trouble of putting fertilizer on the whole field as they may have done without precision technology in the past. This is more sustainable for the environment and more efficient for the farmer because they save time and money.

For the past 20 years, farmers have been adopting new precision agriculture technologies to enhance their farms. Here are some examples:

Satellites

Satellites are used in multiple ways. Because they capture advanced imagery, they can be used to monitor crops as they grow and give farmers a more accurate estimate of what their yields will be. Satellites are also used to track detailed data on field characteristics to give farmers a better idea of what should be planted and where, how much fertilizer to use, and more. Satellites are often used along with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

GPS and GIS

These technologies lend a lot of the precision to precision agriculture. GPS uses satellites to determine exact locations on the ground, while GIS is used to gather, manage and analyze geographical data. They help farmers with field mapping, data collection and tractor guidance, to name a few uses, and also allow farmers to be as accurate as possible when deciding where to plant seed, provide water and apply fertilizer.

Drones

A drone flying over a farm field.

Drones are used in soil analysis, spraying and irrigating fields, planting, and assessing and monitoring the growth and health of plants. Drones are able to travel longer distances and gather accurate information far more efficiently than a human could.

Self-Driving Farm Equipment

Autosteer used on a farm field to plant seeds.

Equipment such as tractors use a combination of GPS, sensors and computers to perform tasks in the field without needing a human driver. This saves the farmer time, labor costs and can also help improve farm safety because tractor-related accidents are the number one cause of injury and death on the farm.

Variable-Rate Application

Variable-rate application being used to make sure only the products that are needed are used.

Farmers use variable-rate application to precisely control the amount of seeds, pesticides or fertilizers they apply to the fields. The applicators can use either prescription maps or built-in sensors along with a computer to know how much product to apply to specific areas of the farm.

As technology continues to advance, farmers and everyone who depends on their products can look forward to finding new ways of improving the efficiency and sustainability of farming practices.

Photos courtesy of United Soybean Board.


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