How to Optimize Inputs & Reduce Costs by Using Zone Management

By Andrew Hunt, Research Agronomist

 

Are you overwhelmed by the amount of data your precision ag equipment generates? If so, you’re not alone.

Thankfully, advances in ag technology allow farmers to combine data and group it into management zones for easier planning and better decision-making.

What are Management Zones?

Farmers have always known their land doesn’t yield evenly in all areas, even demonstrating variability within the same field.

However, recent technological advances provide the ability to map and measure these differences instantly.

In precision agriculture, the grouping of similar areas in a field is often referred to as management zones.

Zones are a grouping of areas within a field that are fairly similar for various attributes that influence yield, such as soil properties (texture, depth, drainage, and organic matter), soil nutrient levels, and topography.

Individually, each of these factors offers some value for management practices, but greater power lies when this data is combined and grouped into these management zones. 

How to Optimize Inputs

The main goal in precision agriculture is to optimize inputs, which in turn leads to increased productivity and reduced environmental impact. 

To adequately apply inputs to meet plant needs, you need information about the variability within the field, which involves expensive and labor-intensive techniques, such as grid soil sampling. However, appropriate management zone creation can reduce the number of samples while also optimizing inputs. 

Beyond soil sampling, the value in creating management zones is that specific types of zones can be created that target a specific management action. For example, management zones can be developed for variable-rate fertilizer and seeding. In irrigated locations, management zones can be generated for variable-rate irrigation. 

Management zones are not static and allow for continuous change as more information about yield drivers for a particular field is understood and collected.  

Using Management Zones for Fertilizer

Since management zones optimize fertilizer inputs by basing application rates on yield variability within a field, financial benefits can result from improved productivity or avoiding overapplication. The potential for these benefits is dependent on previous management strategies, field productivity potential, and field variability.

Flat-rate fertilizer applications are typically intended to meet optimum plant needs across the field on average.  This increases the likelihood that applications are above or below optimum for some areas within a field due to varying nutrient status or yield potential. 

In some instances, creating management zones for fertilizer inputs can lead to a reduction in production costs, especially if a field is highly variable, and overapplication of nutrients is common.  However, management zones often don’t reduce inputs, but rather redistribute inputs from low productivity zones to higher productivity zones.

In other cases, using management zones for variable-rate application may lead to an increase in fertilizer use because more productive areas can have much higher yield goals. While this means there will be little to no savings on overall fertilizer costs, inputs are not being applied in areas where it would be wasted.  

Conclusion

Using management zones allows you to make data-driven decisions, even when factors like soil nutrients and topography vary across your farm. Perhaps most notably, one of the greatest benefits of management zone adoption is that optimizing inputs can lead to an increase in yield per acre, and even more importantly, an increase in revenue.  

Interested in learning how to set up management zones on your farm? Contact Growers at 984.500.3797.

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