Ian J Yule

Director of New Zealand Centre for Precision Agriculture
Massey University,
Palmerston North, New Zealand

Developing techniques to improve land management have occupied many millions of practitioners and scientists over thousands of years. One factor which is evident is the site specific nature of agriculture and other forms of land management. What works in one situation may not be desirable in another and indeed may be completely counter productive. What has changed in recent years is our ability to measure the differences in outcome to a much greater resolution than ever before with yield mapping technologies. In doing so we realise the true extent of spatial variation even within individual paddocks.

In Europe in particular our ancestors developed field systems that recognised the differences in land potential by developing small fields. As agriculture became more mechanised these small fields proved inefficient, as the scale of mechanisation has increased the size of individual fields and farm units has continued to grow. In the immediate years to come that trend is likely to accelerate due to changes in farm business structure. There will continue to be a trend towards fewer but larger units, there will also be a significant trend toward contract farming where those operating the land will not necessarily be the owners and a contract company will do all or some operations for a number of farms. All of these pressures would seem to indicate that less time will be spent on process observation and there is a definite risk that performance in terms of output per hectare could, at worse reduce, or at best not be in a position to utilise the potential benefits that many of the new technologies and improvements to mature technologies could bring. At the same time there is increasing consumer demand for high quality products. In world terms there has been reduced consumer confidence in the food production process due to the apparently large number of food related problems and the scale of those problems when they emerge. This has led to increased demands for in-built quality assurance measures throughout the production process to ensure that good practise has been followed. One outcome of this has been retail companies looking to concentrate on fewer but bigger suppliers who can provide the necessary level of quality assurance.

These two pressures make it abundantly clear that land managers need to develop much more effective management control systems. Studies in Precision Agriculture indicate yield will be limited by the "weakest link" in the production chain. Agriculture and horticulture have long chains and the weakest link may come from a number of sources, water availability, nutrient availability, sub-optimal performance of the mechanisation system, crop protection system, etc. etc., all impact strongly on final outcome. Precision farming should not be seen in isolation or as a means of simply producing yield maps, it is part of a management system that offers a number of technologies to assist in improving land management. The paper examines some of the potential areas where these spatial technologies can be utilised to; reduce production costs, improve the level of management information of the production process, improve the quantity and quality of production and reduce detrimental environmental impacts.

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