Farmers are talking about precision farming, but so far few have tried it.

“I think it's the future, but I don't know how soon the future is going to come,” says Ardean Anderson, Royal City, WA.

Anderson is referring to data collection systems involving GPS, GIS, grid soil sampling, conductivity mapping, aerial imaging and yield monitoring. As he talks, he peers at a baled alfalfa yield map for one of his center-pivot irrigated fields.

On the map above, yields are “themed by area per bale,” he says. Each colored area or “cell” depicts the area between points in the field where his one-ton baler tied off. Red cells indicate low-yielding areas. The greener the cells, the better the yields.

“Down the road, we can take a map like this to the fertilizer company people, and they can put it on the computer on one of their spreaders,” says Anderson, who also raises potatoes, sweet corn and wheat.

Last summer was the first time Anderson used the technology. A rep from Precision Farming Enterprises (PFE), Davis, CA, had asked Anderson to let him put a yield monitor on the baler.

“They wanted to try it out,” says Anderson. “It was neat, baling the field and realizing that something up there in the sky was watching.”

He's convinced that the monitor is accurate, because the yield map indicates a low-yield area exactly where he knows there's a fertility problem.

But he isn't buying GPS equipment just yet. “I feel I need more exposure to this technology.”

That's the typical farmer perspective, says Dave Nerpel, northwest regional manager for PFE at Ephrata, WA.

PFE markets technology and also provides information services that “tie everything together — and come up with a prescription for treatment,” Nerpel says.

He points out that other industries already rely on data management, and figures farmers someday will also budget for that. But, at present, “the acres actually being treated with precision farming are below 5% in Washington State, and integrated programs are almost non-existent.”

It's impossible to pinpoint how precision farming affects profits, says Nerpel.

“There are just too many things that influence yield and quality, starting with the weather,” he says. “The way we look at it, we're here to help people hedge for success.”

He says PFE can put together various types of data management services, tailored to specific crops. The most basic program for hay production would consist of conductivity mapping, variable-rate fertilizer application and yield mapping of each cutting.

“A lower-input program like that would cost the grower between $15 and $20 an acre,” he says.

PFE's baler yield monitor will work on any baler. It measures distance between bales, but does not calculate hay moisture content.

For more information, call Nerpel at 509-546-1712.