The Four M’s of Precision Agriculture

jar of M&M's

M&M’s may be the world’s most popular candy. Just about everybody enjoys eating these colorful candy-coated chocolates, according to surveys.

I like M&M’s as much as anybody, but as a farmer who engages in precision agriculture, I spend more time thinking about M&M&M&M’s, though it’s easier to refer to them as the four M’s.

The four M’s are: Measure, Monitor, Manage, and Mitigate.

Each one is a verb—an action word—and together they represent the actions that farmers everywhere must take as we strive for sustainable food production in the 2020s and beyond.

The idea is simple and science-based: We want to apply just the right amount of resources in just the right places at just the right time so that we can grow the most food without waste or environmental side effects.

Mackenzie, shown here standing in a field of carrots, grows a diversified group of crops.

On our farm in New Zealand, we Measure and Monitor everything so that we can Manage our production systems and Mitigate our impact.

To a certain extent, many farmers already practice precision agriculture at some level. I’m sure that when the first hunters and gatherers settled down in communities to grow their own food, they adopted a version of the four M’s as well.

The difference today, of course, is that we can harness the incredible force of 21st-century technology in ways that not even our parents could have imagined, let alone farmers from history.

I first learned about the four M’s after a visit to the United States in 2008. I was the recipient of a Nuffield Scholarship, which helps farmers develop leadership skills, supporting their travel overseas to learn from others and return to implement and share what they have learned. Thanks to this program, I met Raj Khosla, who now runs the agronomy department at Kansas State University but back then was at Colorado State University. He provided my first serious introduction to the concept of precision agriculture.

At that point in my career, I’d been farming for about three decades and I’d been using some of the techniques of precision agriculture without realizing it. Raj encouraged me to embrace the concept fully and deliberately.

It changed the way I farm. Today, virtually everything I do connects in a fundamental way to precision and sustainable agriculture and the four M’s.

photo of brown sand under blue skyFor farmers, of course, everything starts with the soil. Because of this, the most important tool of precision agriculture may be electromagnetic soil mapping. It gives us an accurate understanding of our soil, it’s water holding capacity and its potential for productivity. With this information, we can apply exact amounts of water and fertilizer, giving our crops precisely what they need to flourish and letting nothing go to waste.

This connects to other practices on our farm. Our spatial soil sampling for fertility levels allows us to adjust our fertilizer and lime usage based on soil types and zones. We’ve found that we’re using 30 percent less of these inputs.

We do the same with water. Our soil moisture probes collect live data every 15 minutes and send it to us every 30 minutes. Armed with facts and figures, we can vary the amounts of irrigation on each nozzle along the length of our irrigators, matching the rate to the exact needs of the soil and plants in that zone. Now we’re using about 35 percent less water. In addition, we don’t leach nutrients past the root zone to the groundwater at all during the growing season.

The result is a paradox. We’re devoting fewer resources to our crops and at the same time watching our productivity improve. Our profits are up, allowing us to reinvest, and our greenhouse gas emissions are down, our carbon footprint reduced.

None of this was the result of a regulation. We’ve done this on our own, without a bureaucrat issuing an order. That’s because it’s in our self-interest to do well by doing good.

Government can play an important role as a partner that encourages farmers to take up new technologies and solve problems—but too often taxes are seen to be a driver to change behavior but in reality, this just limits innovation. It is most important for farmers to remain profitable to have the ability to invest in the technology required to make the changes government and the community require.

As farmers farming the soil, we’ll continue to use the M&M&M&M’s—the four M’s—and devote ourselves to the principles of precision agriculture as we use less and do more.


Nominations are being accepted for candidates to the 2022 Global Farmer Network Roundtable and Communication Training program. Scheduled to be held in Frankfurt, Germany June 12-18, 2022, the next Roundtable will include a virtual component prior to meeting in person. Learn more about the event here.

Craige Mackenzie

Craige Mackenzie

Farming since 1978 on 200 hectares - seed crops including wheat, ryegrass, fescue, hybrid carrots, hybrid radish, spinach and chicory; use crop sensing, soil mapping, variable rate application of fertilizer, chemicals and irrigation. Partners in a 1200 cow dairy.

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