At the WSU Cook Agronomy Farm, USDA-ARS soil scientist David Huggins is developing a new generation of agricultural “tools” that may allow farmers to manage dryland crops down to the square meter. According to Chad Kruger, BIOAg educator for CSANR, the precision nitrogen management program is one of the obvious home runs of the Climate Friendly Farming project.

“For farmers on the Palouse, yields can vary a lot because of all the hills.” said Kruger. “There is often poor use of nitrogen (fertilizers)…with the excess going into wells or into the air as nitrous oxide (N2O).”
(David Huggins, USDA-ARS soil scientist, left, and Stewart Higgins, WSU agricultural research technician, check a solar-charged data logger at the WSU Cook Agronomy Farm. Water and temperature sensors buried throughout the fields transmit information to computers used for modeling precision agriculture systems.Photo by Becky Phillips)
He estimates agriculture is responsible for about 40 percent of global N2O emissions — a gas 297 times more powerful than CO2 for trapping atmospheric heat.

With precision agriculture, farmers use technologies such as geographical information systems (GIS) and global positioning systems (GPS) to determine site-specific applications of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and water.

“The overall effect is a reduction in chemical inputs and environmental degradation,” Kruger said.

Using the system, Kruger said scientists are able to decrease nitrogen applied to crops by at least 20 percent without affecting yields. That savings alone should allow the average Palouse farm “to easily recover the cost of buying the technology equipment in the first year,” he said.