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5 Barriers to Success with Precision Ag…That Actually Are Not Barriers

18 Oct 2021  •  Erin Hightower

Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.”

When it comes to precision agriculture and technology, there are plenty of growers in the “can’t” camp. Those who think they cannot find ways to integrate technology into their operation, unfortunately, are right. This type of mindset creates challenges, mental barriers that are difficult to overcome.

As precision agriculture has advanced throughout my 15 years in this industry, I have witnessed these mental barriers stop good farms from becoming great farms. Growers feel the technology will let them down or will not fit in their current farm view.

These are five of the most common reasons I see growers not step up to the next level of precision agriculture adoption. If any of them resonate, I also include my advice to “auto” steer you (ha, see what I did there?) in the right direction.  

“Barrier” #1: My Equipment is Too Old
With many newer machines, precision agriculture technology is often integrated into the machine. It is easy to understand why this makes growers believe that older machines are not eligible for technology updates.

While some machines may be tougher to work with than others, most can be outfitted with the latest technology. This does not mean they may not need some creative managing and an add-on or two. But having the knowledge on what is possible to retrofit and what is not can go a long way to building a stronger fleet, without feeling any pressure to upgrade to a newer machine.

I have taken one-on-one time to show growers how brackets, harnesses and simple updates can be added to older machinery. I have even gone so far as to share extreme examples to highlight the untapped potential of older equipment – like that time our team successfully put a form of GPS device on a ‘68 potato truck for anti-theft purposes. Don’t hesitate to ask your trusted advisor for ideas and help like this.

Beyond the age of the tractors, sprayers or combines, some may think the technology those machines already have is outdated. Similar to upgrading older machines, older technology can still work well and bring a ton of value.

“Barrier” #2: My Operators Cannot Use It Correctly
The level of knowledge and tech savvy among equipment operators can be extremely varied. However, making an investment and giving operators grace can help create a shift in how things are done.

First, top level management needs to see and understand the big picture, what they are getting by investing in technology and how it will change the operation. A trusted advisor, like a precision ag specialist can help with this step.

Once the leaders understand the big picture, it is time to communicate the transition to staff. Establish an open-door policy for questions from the team as they are learning and adapting. It is also helpful to explain to all operators the “why” behind it so be sure that all operators are given a full picture of what good data can do and why it matters – to the operation but also to them, personally.

And that leads to, what I believe is often the biggest factor that must be understood when overcoming this barrier: cultural change takes time.

Related article:Challenges and opportunities of the first year using agronomic data

Learning takes time. Developing skills takes time. Asking operators to change how they do their job is not an overnight process, it is not even something that will happen after a day or more of training. It is not uncommon to take an entire growing season or even multiple seasons before the data begins to flow. Setting this expectation for yourself and every operator helps prevent throwing in the towel too soon.

“Barrier” #3: My Operation is Too Small
It is a line that many have said about precision agriculture technology: “We are not interested in this because we are a small operation.”

This perspective fails to appreciate the advantages of precision agriculture adoption that are exclusive to small farms. First, smaller operations often have a greater opportunity to unlock the benefits of precision technology because they can make changes faster and impacts can be realized sooner.

But more importantly, smaller farms have greater risk that technology can help minimize. Think about a large farm, hundreds upon hundreds of acres. If a few of those acres do not produce as expected, it will not be detrimental to the operation. This scenario would be devastating to a small farm, where every acre must perform at its best. Looking through the lens of risk management, it is easier to see why precision technology and data-driven strategy is crucial for small farms.

“Barrier” #4: I Don’t Have Time to Deal with All the Data
When being introduced to a data management platform, it is easy to be overwhelmed by all the options that are available. That is why the best way to manage data – and curb data anxiety – is to start small.

Consider adopting a precision strategy starting with one machine. I did this with a grower I recently introduced to the John Deere Operations Center™. He had not yet worked in Operations Center but was interested because he bought a new sprayer and realized the opportunity for the reports and spray management details. Rather than jump in with every machine and opportunity available to him, we decided to start with just the sprayer. We focused and refined that effort. Not only was he able to save money as a result of reducing inputs and proper reporting, the effort gave him the energy and confidence to take the next step and start managing seeding. A win-win!

Related article: Maximize agronomic data value with a six step approach

Connecting machines and analyzing data does not have to be an all-at-once effort. In fact, starting small, one step at a time, is a great way to keep the overwhelm in check and still reap the rewards of implementing precision technology. 

“Barrier” #5: This is How We Have Always Done It
Anyone in any professional industry can identify with those eight, damning words: “This is how we have always done it.” Admittedly, this is probably the most difficult barrier to break down. But it is an important one because it also presents the greatest opportunity to solve a challenge.

Technology, genetic management and soil sciences have changed drastically in the last century but also, important changes have come in very simple, yet effective ways. And sometimes, it is those small, simple technologies, not the big, grandioso ones, that present the greatest opportunity to help see the potential.

I recently found a letter my great grandpa Orin wrote to my grandpa Bill in 1932. He was wishing there were headlights on his John Deere E Series so he could farm later in the day. When headlights did come out, that was an exciting new technology feature, yet many growers probably felt they could do without it. But can you imagine now, a grower buying a tractor without headlights? That advancement, those headlights, solved a simple pain point for my great grandpa and that was all he needed to make the choice to upgrade.

Think about your own pain point, a challenge you’d like to solve. There is always at least one frustration everyone secretly wants fixed. Talk with a trusted advisor who will find a solution, and show both how it will fix the problem and improve the operation on top of that.

And, I have said this before, but it is worth repeating: it is okay to start small. Adopting even one simple piece of technology – ahem, headlights anyone? – can make a big impact.

It is true that something that has worked in the past may work now and in the near future. But it will not work forever. It is only becoming more challenging to manage a farm. Factors like drought and extreme temperatures, rising input costs and resilient pests prove that technology and data must be a now-or-never adoption.

Sometimes, we all can be our own biggest barrier. But every grower has the opportunity breakthrough those preconceived ideas and find success with precision agriculture technology.  

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Interested in more about precision agriculture? Check out the RDO Equipment Co. Agriculture Technology Podcast, browse past episodes, and find out more about everything from equipment to UAVs to specialty crop care. Watch the video series Precision Ag Answers – from RDO Equipment Co. on YouTube on YouTube for a mix of quick tips and deep dives into the biggest precision agriculture questions.

Erin Hightower

Erin Hightower has been working in farm planning and agronomy for 15 years. As an Agronomist at RDO Equipment Co., she works with team members and growers in the Northwest region, focused on education and training, and conducting field trials. She is a Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) and Certified USDA NRCS Nutrient Management Planner, Certified Conservation Planner, and Comprehensive Nutrient Management Planner.

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