Management Zones Help
Precision agriculture—modifying the management within fields by using information about soil and crop variability—can be useful to farmers. They may use fewer chemicals (which saves them money and benefits the environment) and at the same time they may increase their yields. Generally, farmers are interested in targeting their inputs and labor to where they can get the most return on their dollar and protect the environment. Precision agriculture methods and technologies can help them do that.
Agricultural Research Service (ARS) soil scientist Newell R. Kitchen believes there could be a resurgence in precision agriculture thanks to the recent Farm Bill and its increased support for conservation programs.
One method of precision agriculture is to create "management zones" within fields—specific areas within a field that respond to management practices in a similar way. There are various ways to create these zones.
One new way is to take mapped soil and/or crop information and let a computer mathematically find the "most alike" areas of the field. The computer can take thousands of numbers and find areas that are alike, cluster them together, and generate a map. Kitchen's research group has developed a software program called Management Zone Analyst, or MZA, that does this quickly and easily.
"One may create various management zones for a field, but the map will likely look different depending on what management practice is being done," Kitchen explains. For example, a management zone map for weed management will probably not be the same as one for nitrogen fertilizer.
Kitchen stresses the need for validating the management zone map. "It's a mathematical approach," he says. "We need to take other information into account to make sure it's valid."
Newell R. Kitchen is with the USDA-ARS Cropping Systems and Water Quality Research Laboratory, University of Missouri, Agricultural Engineering Building, Room 269, Columbia, MO 65211; phone (573) 882-1135, fax (573) 882-1115.
"Management Zones Help in Precision Agriculture" was published in the August 2003 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.