Satellite farming needn't cost the Earth

Satellite technology is not only available, it is also affordable — and becoming more so.

And, as more farmers take up the new technology, prices are likely to drop. Yield monitoring equipment — often the first component of a precision farming system — typically costs $8,000-10,000 and can include basic mapping software, according to Jonathan Medway of Charles Sturt University's Farrer Centre for Conservation Farming.

"The cost of a standard GPS ranges from $500 to $10,000, with proportionate unit accuracy and reliability," Mr Medway said. "One option being readily used is the hire of the more expensive units which have inbuilt satellite-based differential correction, delivering accuracy of one to five metres anywhere in Australia for $50 per day or $5 per hour."

Currently available farm mapping software can generate and store field maps. More specialised programs are needed to investigate the yield maps and to develop control maps for variable applicators. In the initial stages these specialised programs may be more commonly used by precision farming specialists and consultants. The programs are, however, available for $4,000-10,000.

Impressive cost benefits

These figures show the cost of putting a yield monitor into a new header is fairly insignificant compared to the price of a new header. And the cost of a GPS system is not high when compared to the potential benefits it can bring.

Farmers in the USA have calculated that they will offset the costs of precision farming in 2-4 years.

Sharing the cost of buying a service is another alternative, according to Rob Gourlay of Canberra-based Environmental Research and Information Consortium (ERIC). By clubbing together to buy data for a whole area, farmers can reduce costs to a matter of cents per acre. Mr Gourlay believes farmers will adopt remotely sensed data services if these services only are accessible and packaged at a reasonable cost.