Steve Cubbage is a precision ag consultant and farmer from Nevada, Mo.
Steve Cubbage is a precision ag consultant and farmer from Nevada, Mo.

The precision agriculture industry has a vanity problem.

Precision stakeholders such as iron manufacturers, hardware companies, seed companies and now even the high-flying Big Data companies tout “how far we’ve come” since the early days of precision ag. Such narcissistic pats on the back are constantly being fueled by “independent” surveys showing how readily precision technology has been adopted by producers.

Timeout for a reality check.

The problem with such surveys is that the story being propagated is quite at odds with the reality on the ground. They have about as much relevance as current political polls and USDA crop surveys. Ask any precision service provider with dust on their boots, and they will likely tell you that there is a stark difference between what is called “adoption” and the actual “utilization” of technology.

Although technologies like yield monitoring, autosteer and autoboom can probably now be considered mainstream, there is a tremendous amount of potential being left on the table by producers. In the short term, it is likely to get worse as the precision industry just keeps spitting out apps and widgets like Model T’s on Henry Ford’s assembly line.

Ironically, yield monitoring—one of the oldest technologies in the precision stable—has one of the widest gaps between adoption and actual utilization. Monsanto found this reality the hard way when it introduced its FieldScripts program that relied heavily on grower-collected yield data. Even the “best” growers they courted struggled to come up with three solid years’ worth of yield data.

Variable-rate seeding is another example where adoption of the technology soared when commodity prices were hitting new highs and new planters were flying off dealer lots. When I attended Precision Planter meetings packed with growers and the crowds were asked how many growers had variable-rate capable planters—nearly two-thirds of the attendees would raise their hands. Then came the rest of the story. How many of these same growers actually had used and implemented variable-rate seeding prescriptions? Sheepishly, only one or two hands would usually go up.

This is the harsh reality that the precision industry must face. It is time to take a look in the mirror and ask why such great technology simply either is not being used and in some cases being abandoned altogether.

If you look closely at the precision technologies that have the widest gap between adoption and utilization you will likely find common threads. For example, the adoption/utilization gap for a technology like autosteer is literally non-existent because it is the ultimate “easy button” of precision ag. All you have to do is hit the engage button after every turn at the the end of the field. Whereas, technologies like yield mapping require entering field names and varieties, multiple calibration loads and then downloading data onto cards and USB sticks. It’s complicated.

So, what is the solution? How do you narrow the precision utilization gap?

First, the industry—manufacturers, retailers and others—must sober to the fact that it has done an absolute terrible job of educating producers on how to fully implement precision on their farms. No “Precision Ag for Dummies” handbook has ever been written. Maybe there should be.

There are many fingers to be pointed, but organizations like the corn and soybean organizations along with the likes of the American Farm Bureau need to be leading the charge in helping producers connect the precision dots. Secondly, there are fingers that point back to growers. They need to wake up and do their homework and be engaged in the process. Utilizing precision is much more than watching a yield monitor for its entertainment value or receiving a variable-rate fertilizer bill from their co-op or ag retailer.

It’s time for everyone to look in the precision mirror.