The Payoff From Precision Agriculture

Students size up the precision farming benefits from planter and sprayer controls.

Craig Smith helps students in his ag-technology class analyze the impact of auto-section and row-control technology on farms.

New agriculture technology is helping farmers master a bit of magic by squeezing big planters and sprayers into small fields. While it won’t widen the farm gate or square up the creek, GPS navigation linked to row and sectional controls on those machines can nearly eliminate overlap and double-planting on headlands and point rows that adds to costs—and can even decrease yields—on many fields.

“The ability of these savings to pay for the technology varies greatly by the size and shape of fields, cost of in-puts, total acres covered per year, and the level of control [number of nozzles or rows],” says Craig Smith, ag economist and precision farming specialist with Fort Hays State University, in Hays, Kan.

To demonstrate that variability, Smith tasked 103 students in five semesters of his Technology in Agriculture class to analyze 10 fields from their family farms. A computerized decision tool, the Guidance and Section Control Profit Calculator from Kansas State University (, estimated overlap based on field geometry and the level of control.

“We analyzed 1,445 fields totaling 135,755 acres in three states (Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado) and the results showed that investing in automatic row- and swath-control technology was a no-brainer on some farms but not on others,” says Smith.

Fields were grouped into 16 USDA crop reporting districts. Average field size, which had a significant influence on the results, varied widely between the districts. They ranged from 397 acres in eastern Colorado to the smallest of 26 acres in eastern Kansas.

The project compared planting corn and grain sorghum with a 12-row planter controlled as one section, two 6-row sections or six 2-row sections. For corn, assumptions included a cost of $6,500 and $10,000 for the two row-control options, a seed cost of $110 per acre, an annual use of 1,500 acres, and a 25% yield loss for double-planting.

The Results

Average results for fields in six of the districts varied widely, and are shown in the table below. “The net savings for planting corn ranged from $14.17 per acre in the small, irregular fields of eastern Kansas to $2.05 per acre in the large, uniform fields of eastern Colorado. In eastern Kansas—and similar areas of the Corn Belt—this technology paid for itself halfway through its first season, and in many other areas it paid off in just one year,” says Smith.

In contrast to corn, the lower seed costs for planting sorghum ($15 per acre) reduce the benefits of row shut-off technology. In the six districts shown above, total savings ranged from $0.56 to $3.88 per acre.

Students also compared the benefits of using a 90-foot sprayer controlled as one section, five 16-foot sections, or 60 individual nozzles on their fields. “In many cases we found major savings for going from whole-boom control to automatic control of five sections, and smaller gains going from section control to individual nozzle control,” says Smith.

The Payoff of Precision Farming

Assumptions included $10,000 to convert to sectional control and $25,000 for nozzle control, an input cost of $15 per acre, and 10,000 acres of annual use. “The annual benefit, after operating costs, of switching to sectional control ranged from $0.05 per acre in eastern Colorado to $1.82 per acre in eastern Kansas. The pay-back period would be one-half year in Kansas and four years in Colorado.

Given the assumptions of the study, eastern Kansas was the only area where individual nozzle control saved enough to offset the cost of the equipment within the five-year amortization period.“

“The economies of scale can have a significant impact on the investment in individual nozzle control. Many producers, and most custom applicators, spray more than 10,000 acres. For fields in northwest Kansas, going from section control to nozzle control [a $15,000 investment] would pay with just over 20,000 acres of annual use,” explains Smith.

A version of this story appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of The Furrow Magazine published by John Deere. 

Payoff for corn planter shutoffs

 Annual Savings ($/ac.)Payback period (years)
AreaTwo 6-row sectionsSix 2-row sectionsTwo 6-row sectionsSix 2-row sections
Northwest KS4.556.691.01.1
Southwest KS3.415.011.41.5
Central KS5.047.470.91.0
East central KS9.3514.170.50.4
Southern NE4.857.191.01.0
East central CO1.362.053.83.9


The Payoff From Precision Agriculture


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