By: Jamie Henneman 

Advancements in technology can help farmers become better “gamblers,” according to Dr. Bruce Maxwell of Montana State University (MSU). Maxwell has been conducting research on the potential benefits of precision agriculture that uses computer data collection and prediction models to help farmers have better decision-making tools.

“As we try to support decision-making, how do we do that? Every field at a farm is likely to respond to input management differently, but to get the maximum return on investment, we can use specific data that can inform the farmer better than a trial and error method,” Maxwell said.

He presented his current data at the recent Montana Farm Bureau Federation conference in Billings.

He and his team conducted precision farming research on eight different farms in Montana and one in Manitoba from 2014 to 2022. Maxwell’s team used target applications of inputs, data collection, and prediction models to get the best production results from individual fields.

“Basically, we can hand the fertilizer applicator a map and then record the yield response. With that data we can then use predictive equations to determine how we can use nitrogen efficiently in that field,” he explained. “From there, we can then take economic data and run that through the model thousands of times for possible outcomes.”

This method allows farmers to judge input levels and other economic decisions based on reliable past data.

“We are creating examples from the past for possible futures,” Maxwell said. “We can also look at changes to the operation, like what the yield loss would be if the farm went organic, but also inputting the increase in return. Although it’s assumed switching to organic methods creates a 40 percent loss in yield, the 4-5 time increase in returns can make up for that, for example.”

Using the data and the predictor models had a positive result in the field tests, particularly in the application of nitrogen, Maxwell said.

“We can take this a step further and look at the net return for 10 years by analyzing the data and seeing what the application rates could be to minimize risk in a number of different weather conditions,” he said.

However, even with the technology showing promise, Maxwell voiced some cautious optimism.

“We have to be careful because this tech is still experimental, “he said. “There are a lot of promises being made by software companies out there, so at MSU we are working to take an objective approach.”

He also noted there are some potential cultural ramifications if precision agriculture is widely adopted.

“We do have to ask, who would really benefit from this modern technology? How do we condense and deliver this option while still keeping the ‘culture’ of farming? If we aren’t careful, we can take the farmer right out of the process if machines start running themselves,” he said. “There are mines in Australia right now that are being mined by machines and people in suits 250 miles away are running the mining equipment. The only people on-site at the mine are mechanics who fix something if it breaks.”

Some younger producers at Maxwell’s talk had a positive view of the new developments.

“We have to ask who will use the data and it’s likely going to need more agronomists in the field, which means there will be more jobs, especially when we see there is always going to need to be someone to have a personal connection with the farmer,” said Joel Lackman, an agriculture leadership student at MSU.

Ty Olson, a Farm Bureau member at the conference added, “Farming is not going to go away, but it won’t be the same as our grandparents did it. It’s really adapt or die.”

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