In any production system, precision leads to efficiency and quality. For soybean production, precision also leads to sustainability.

“We strive for every drop of water or nutrient to be used within the soybean, not wasted,” says Tim Venverloh, Vice President of Sustainability Strategy for the United Soybean Board.

“It’s not in our environmental or economic best interest to do it any other way. And precision agriculture technology provides knowledge and tools to do just that.”

Soybean farmers have made significant sustainability gains over time. Field to Market analysis of USDA data shows that since 1980, they have

  • Lowered land use 22 percent per bushel.
  • Decreased soil erosion per acre 47 percent.
  • Reduced irrigation water use about 32 percent per bushel.
  • Cut per-bushel energy use 35 percent.
  • Dropped greenhouse gas emissions per bushel 38 percent.

How have they done this? Thirty-seven percent of farmers credit new technology and equipment, including irrigation systems, for allowing them to positively impact their environment over the past 10 years, according to a U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance sustainability survey.

And they aren’t alone. Fifty-six percent of consumers agree that farmers and ranchers already use new technologies and innovations to protect the environment, according to the 2017 Agriculture in America Sustainability Report.

“Precision agriculture combines data layers and exact input placement in soybean fields,” explains Venverloh. “The results have spurred improvements in sustainability measures.”

He says farmers use data from yield maps and soil tests to determine specific amounts of inputs, like seeds and nutrients, to use different areas of their fields. Much of their equipment has GPS technology that tells them where they are in a field within inches. Precision management allows them to apply just what the crop needs in just the right place.

“Instead of applying the same amount of seed, fertilizer and pesticides throughout a field, farmers vary rates to provide precisely what’s needed — neither more nor less,” Venverloh says. “This conserves nutrients, produces more on less land and reduces the carbon footprint. Precision management also minimizes the chances of inputs washing away from fields, protecting water quality.”

Incorporating precision technology into irrigation has improved water use efficiency, as well. He notes that today’s irrigation rigs mimic perfect raindrops with varying nozzle sizes and spray patterns, creating drops large enough not to evaporate, but small and slow enough not to cause soil compaction. Calculations based on soil type and crop needs ensure that irrigation water soaks into the root zone without runoff.

Precision technology also contributes to reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

“For example, autosteer tractors use GPS to drive through fields and reduce fuel use roughly 7 to 8 percent,” Venverloh says. “Incremental improvements will keep the soy industry moving toward future sustainability goals.”

He believes ongoing advances and adoption of precision technology will help the soy industry meet 2025 goals for sustainability improvement. Those goals include

  • Reduce land use impact 10 percent.
  • Increase energy use efficiency 10 percent.
  • Reduce total greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent.

“Farmers continue to do more with less,” he says. “Precision agriculture makes that possible.”