March 12, 2003 | By: Laura Skillman

As precision agricultural technology evolves, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture researchers are seeking to determine how it may benefit the environment.

“Precision agriculture and the environment is really a new field where we really don’t have a lot of data yet,” said Ron Fleming, a natural resource economist with the UK College of Agriculture.

“As a result, we have not been able to characterize the environmental impact,” he said. “We suspect that they are good. We suspect that if we are doing what precision agriculture is designed to do, and that means placing nutrients, fertilizers and herbicides where they are most needed, we are reducing the amount of material that is going onto the field. Therefore, we should see an improvement in the environment.”

 But that is not necessarily true, Fleming said. It depends on the field and the location.

Fleming’s work at UK is to help farmers figure out how to meet environmental objectives as well as have input in legislative decisions to ensure that environmental objectives can be met while not being catastrophic to farmers. Determining how precision agriculture may fit into those equations also is part of his efforts.

UK is trying to do research that will allow for a better understanding of how placing a nutrient or chemical in one area of the field will impact another area such as near a stream bank, Fleming said.

“We are starting to collect data to help us do that,” he said. “The first thing we have to do is to have data on how yield responds to variable inputs such as variable rate nitrogen, for example.

“We need decent background information on how yields are attained in certain cropping situations and measure how much nutrients are coming off the fields or how much pesticides are coming off a field,” Fleming said. “We really need this information to access the impact of precision agriculture.”

Attaining that information is tricky, and is especially difficult in Kentucky’s karst landscape.

“We are going to have to do lab experimentation as well as get information from monitors in fields and along the edges of fields,” he said. “It takes a lot of work to try to access what materials are leaving the fields in the air and water.”

There are situation models that can aid in projecting this data but the background data is necessary to validate what is actually happening in fields. The question is how accurate are those models and should they be used to make environmental policy, Fleming said.

Should research be able to substantiate that precision agriculture practices can result in a positive impact to the environment, perhaps programs may become available through governmental policy makers to help farmers initiate some of these practices, he said.

“Precision agriculture has some benefits for some income improvement potential in some situations.  It may also have some environmental benefits,” Fleming continued.  “If we can quantify those environmental benefits, then we can go back to various agencies and say we are taking on the risk and cost of implementing these technologies, we are improving the environment by doing so, this is a benefit to society, help us adopt these technologies like other best management practices that are out there.”


Ron Fleming (859) 257-7271