Precision Agriculture: Delta Style

Tim Sharp with students

Precision agriculture technology and cotton. For years, experts have speculated that this would some day become a marriage made in heaven for growers throughout the Delta, bringing profitability and stability to a beleaguered market.

And yet, the “precision revolution” has been slow to come to these parts, as only a handful of believers have really managed to take agriculture technology and push it to its limits. One of the visionary Meccas that has emerged for precision practices, Jackson State Community College (JSCC) in Jackson, TN, has been toiling away at this marriage of technology and cotton production since 1998.

And, along with producing some outstanding and precision-savvy graduates, the college is busy melding old-school cotton cropping practices with technology and helping growers make more money.

A Man With A Vision

JSCC’s journey into precision was visualized by its current leader, Tim Sharp, in 1998. Sharp had spent more than a decade working at DuPont before taking a management position at an ag dealership in 1994. By the middle of the decade, it was becoming clear that biotechnology was about to revolutionize cotton production and take a bite out of his business, so he started running some numbers.

“It hadn’t yet hit, but I looked at what was going on with Roundup Ready and Bollgard, and I started figuring out the impact of these on our company profits,” recalls Sharp. “That’s when I thought, ‘well, maybe it’s time to get into a new business.'”

Taking on an opportunity to be a professor at a community college wasn’t first on his list, but part-time teaching work at Jackson State eventually evolved into a full-time opportunity to mold a fledgling ag technology program into what he saw as the future of cotton production.

“I basically said that if we are going to have an impact, then we need to go where the technology is going to be, not where it is today,” says Sharp. “So we decided to remake ourselves into the world’s best precision agriculture program — that’s been the goal from the time we started, and we’ve tried to stay that course and create a research and education presence here at JSCC.”

What really started Sharp visualizing the potential of precision agriculture technology was some consulting work he had done 10 years prior on plant growth regulators (PGRs). “We started experimenting with different timings and applications, and it became apparent that there were distinct zones within fields that could be managed using different strategies,” says Sharp. “So when precision agriculture technology started to come on line, we began to look for ways it would work for cotton.”

Getting Started

The program was launched by Sharp and 15 students in 1998 with the goal of bringing cotton growers greater profitability. “We always said that if the growers can’t make money from it, we won’t do it.” Sharp explains.

There certainly was no glamour or overnight success story at Jackson State, but Sharp’s previous experience in the business world certainly paid dividends in the first year.

“Precision agriculture programs are brutally expensive to operate, and really cash hungry when you are ramping up, because you are buying everything and everything is expensive,” recalls Sharp. “So, you need to fund it like a startup company — beg, borrow, find grant money — it took better than $1 million for us to really get started.”

Early supporters of the program included retailers Helena Chemical Co. and MFA, seed company Delta & Pine Land, precision manufacturers SST Development Group and Starlink (now owned by Raven Industries), as well as the Cotton Foundation, Cotton Incorporated, the National Science Foundation, and USDA.

Its biggest break in the first year, though, was a contract JSCC won to create the cotton boundary database for the Boll Weevil Eradication Program (BWEP) for western Tennessee. “We boundary mapped 600,000 acres using imagery techniques that gave our students a lot of real-world experience, and put the program on a solid footing,” says Sharp.

A key relationship starting out in 1998 was Karcher Farms, with whom Sharp had a consulting relationship in the past. Also, one of the farm family’s sons, Brandon, was a student.

“We provided tech support and they gave us use of the land and the tools that let us take our concept and put it in a working farm environment,” recalls Sharp.

Image Is Everything

Sharp based the program’s path forward on a key fundamental assumption about making cotton — every field can be zoned into high, medium, and low production areas that, when approached using a consistent agronomic regimen, maximize yields and reduce inputs within the zones.

To prove this assumption would take three years of grunt work, including intense soil sampling, use of aerial imagery, and a ton of ground truthing.

Sharp and his students began their work on the Karcher farm by creating a soil sample database. In 2000, they brought in an aerial imagery company to shoot the fields — then, the real work began.

“This was the key step — figuring out how to interpret the imagery in a way that would allow us to zone out the fields,” says Sharp. “We had to determine whether the high, medium, and low zones we were identifying were stable temporally and spatially, and we spent 2000 and 2001 working on this question.”

If the zones did prove stable, Sharp explains, then it would be possible to create “mission plans” — basically, the variable-rate prescription for non-fertilizer inputs — for all future years on that base piece of imagery.

Sharp says that the high, medium, and low producing zones have proven to be stable 96% of the time. The remaining 4% are field areas especially susceptible to weather extremes such as excessive moisture.

Something Old, Something New

With a clear handle on zone identification using base imagery and a large base of field data, Sharp and his students went to work developing software “mission plans” for the Karchers to use for in-season applications. This meant taking new learnings from the imagery and sampling and applying tried and true cotton production knowledge to develop a sound, workable plan.

“There is nothing we are doing agronomically here that’s new, other than the tools that are letting us do it more accurately and with greater confidence,” Sharp asserts. “We are taking what we should be doing — classic trap cropping, spot spraying, managing seed populations — and doing it at a much higher management level. Lots of folks have forgotten that we can do this stuff, but it still goes back to good management practices and using technology to accomplish it.”

The mission plan sets parameters for planting, insecticides, and PGRs, some intuitive and some against the grain of common practice in cotton production. For example, variable-rate seeding under the JSCC plan calls for denser planting in high zones than low zones.

“We recommend half the recommended rate — two seeds per foot — in low zones, three in medium, and four in high,” says Sharp. The seeding regimen included selecting a stacked Bollgard/Roundup Ready variety treated with either Cruiser or Gaucho, which runs about $70 per acre. “So you’re getting a $35 per acre reduction in cost in the low zones.”

Zone identification then carries over to insecticide and PGR plans. Imagery paints a picture of insect hot spots by identifying areas of lush growth where key pests such as plant bugs and stink bugs will colonize first before expanding to the rest of the field. In two years of scouting and spraying, only 20% of the field was sprayed and control was achieved.

“This approach also is a major benefit to the bollworm-budworm complex,” notes Sharp. “Because by only spraying 20% of the field, 80% is untouched, and you end up with really high levels of beneficial insects that can rapidly flow in behind a spray application and colonize where you did spray.

“You’ve got to remember that bollworm is big game, and it takes full grown assassin bugs and praying mantises to take on full grown bollworms. If you keep spraying everything, you don’t get large, predatory insects.”

PGR applications also fall in nicely with the high-medium-low zone identification. PGRs are applied in the high zones to keep plant size down and encourage boll production, meaning that it often can be tank-mixed with the PGR, increasing efficiency and reducing application cost.

Delivering The Plan

Once the mission plan is finalized, it is delivered on a compatible memory card to the farmer. In the Karcher program, the first year took a lot of training and consultation with the family to get through. By the end of the second year, though, the Karchers were working largely on their own once the plan was set.

Eventually Sharp sees it moving off campus and into consulting operations and retail agronomy departments — but he does not see a way for growers to do this on their own.

“This program has to require a consultant at some level,” says Sharp. “There are some things a grower needs to do, and some a consultant needs to do. Writing the mission plans and managing the GIS database is the consultant’s world.

“The grower does not have time,” he continues. “The learning curve is brutal, staying on top of the technology is a constant challenge, and someone has got to provide the technical service.”

In the Cotton Belt, where the consultant still plays a prominent role, can the retailer-based agronomist carve out a piece of the new precision pie? Sharp says yes, but with greater difficulty.

“The retailer can play both roles, but the consulting organization cannot be perceived as a sales organization,” says Sharp. “And Lord knows that it’s hard to keep those two apart. The mission of the retail organization is pounds on the ground, but the mission of this precision program is keeping pounds off the ground — to make money by not spending it.”

“The retailer can do it, if he can get around that trust factor with the grower. Because to do this, you really need to get into the grower’s business and he has to trust that he is getting sound advice.”

In the end, Sharp says he believes the cotton growing infrastructure will support both consultants and independent retailers, giving growers multiple service options.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the December 2003 issue of PrecisionAg Special Reports.

Leave a Reply

Grower Services & Solutions Stories
Farmers Business Network, FBN Procurement
Data ManagementFBN Expanding, Rebranding Procurement; Launching Price Transparency App
December 13, 2016
Farmers Business Network (FBN), the independent farmer-to-farmer network, today announced the launch of major new technologies and services that expand Read More
Grower Services & SolutionsGrower Groups Encourage Implementation Of AgGateway’s ADAPT For Precision Ag
November 2, 2016
A dozen leading U.S. grower organizations are hailing the collaborative efforts that led to the new AgGateway ADAPT framework for Read More
Students Training
Grower Services & SolutionsPrecision Ag Students Learn How To Combine Technology And Customer Service
October 27, 2016
Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, IA, has partnered with AgriSync to help students gain experience and develop superior customer Read More
Corn Field
Grower Services & SolutionsCorn Growers On Big Plots Are Most Tech-Savvy Of Farmers
October 20, 2016
U.S. corn farmers are proving themselves to be quick learners, writes Mario Parker on Bloomberg.com. Growers producing the grain on Read More
Trending Articles
PrecisionAg.com featured image
ProfessionalsWelcome to the Newly Enhanced PrecisionAg.com
December 29, 2016
Talk a quick look around our website and we hope you’ll notice it’s significantly different as we head into 2017 Read More
Ryan Raguse and Matthew Grassi
ProfessionalsIndustry Executives Talk New PrecisionAg Professional Brand
December 19, 2016
EFC Systems President and CEO Ernie Chappell Myriad Mobile Cofounder and Chairman Ryan Raguse Read More
PrecisionAg Professional logo
Industry NewsMeister Media Debuts PrecisionAg Professional
December 13, 2016
Agricultural technology is accelerating, and precision agriculture is gaining renewed interest across cropping systems. At the same time, growers are Read More
NDSU IoT
Sensors/IoTNew Farming Focused IoT Partnership Announced
December 13, 2016
Infiswift, an enterprise Internet of Things (IoT) platform developer, announces a partnership to develop IoT solutions with Acuitus Ag, an Read More
GVM E-Series cab
Ag Tech GlobalGlobalization And Precision Agriculture
December 7, 2016
Globalization has taken on a negative connotation in some circles in the U.S. in recent months. The lightning rod for Read More
Farmers Edge Truck
Data ManagementFarmers Edge, Trotter Fertilizer Form Partnership To Enhance VRT Programs
November 29, 2016
Farmers Edge, a global leader in precision agriculture and independent data management solutions, has partnered with Trotter Fertilizer, Nebraska’s foremost Read More
Latest News
BASF Maglis Grower Tablet
EventsRetailers, Consultants Untangle Software Decision Proce…
January 19, 2017
Today, business and agronomy management software is the engine that facilitates a smooth running ag business. The next software decision Read More
Ag Weather Service
Decision Support SoftwareSciFi in Ag: Will Amazon’s Alexa Control the Fami…
January 19, 2017
*Article Notes: This monthly column takes some crazy sounding ideas and applies them to the field of Ag Tech. The Read More
Data ManagementNew Partnerhship Between AgIntegrated, CDMS, SeediQ Wil…
January 18, 2017
AgIntegrated, Inc. (AGI), CDMS, Inc. and SeediQ announce a partnership to develop, promote, and sell a single-source crop input reference Read More
Corn Field Sunset
Ag Tech GlobalAg Technology Among Focus Areas For Kohli Impact Invest…
January 18, 2017
Tej Kohli, a serial entrepreneur, global businessman and philanthropist, has announced he has earmarked an initial $25 million USD, through his Read More
Terry Griffin
Business ManagementUsing High Tech To Make Farm Decisions
January 17, 2017
Raj Khosla, professor of precision agriculture at Colorado State University, challenged farmers to think about how far the technology of Read More
Decisive Farming My Farm Manager mobile app
Ag Tech GlobalLeading Canadian Farming Co-op Brings In New Tech To Bo…
January 17, 2017
Co-op, one of the largest agricultural retailers in Western Canada, is partnering with farm management company Decisive Farming to provide Read More
Business ManagementCNH Names Danford Industry Relations Manager
January 17, 2017
Dan Danford has been named Industry Relations Manager, Precision Solutions and Telematics (PS&T), for CNH Industrial, parent company of agricultural Read More
Australian Harvest
Ag Tech GlobalAustralian Precision Agriculture Market, Forecast To 20…
January 13, 2017
Research and Markets has announced the addition of the “Australian Precision Agriculture Market, Forecast to 2020” report to their offering. Read More
Norris planter
Innovation SeriesCompelling Consultant Panel Kicks Off Next Month’s Prec…
January 12, 2017
Jeremy Wilson, Technology Specialist at CropIMS and renowned precision expert, leads a panel of top precision consultants to kick off Read More
Data ManagementProspera Selected for Top 100 Artificial Intelligence R…
January 11, 2017
CB Insights today selected Prospera to the prestigious Artificial Intelligence 100 list (“AI 100”), a select group of emerging private Read More
Business ManagementBREAKING: FAA Considering Less Restrictive Commercial D…
January 11, 2017
FAA is working toward allowing more freedom for drone operators, and at the same time is working with NASA on Read More
DronessenseFly, Agribotix Combine eBee SQ and FarmLens Offeri…
January 11, 2017
Agribotix has partnered with senseFly to offer a new combined solution for professional users. This technology solution combines the top Read More
Sentera software
DronesSentera Announces NDVI Livestream Capabilities for Doub…
January 10, 2017
Sentera today announced the upcoming release of LiveNDVI Video: livestreamed NDVI video via Sentera’s Double 4K sensor. This breakthrough technology Read More
Young Corn Field
Ag Tech GlobalEurocontrol To Commercialize Precision Agricultural Ini…
January 9, 2017
Eurocontrol Technics Group Inc., a Canadian public company specializing in the acquisition, development and commercialization of innovative test and measurement Read More
Corn Field
Data ManagementWaypoint Analytical, Highland Precision Ag Announce Str…
January 9, 2017
Waypoint Analytical (WP), based in Memphis, TN, and Highland Precision Ag (HPA), based in Mulberry, FL, are pleased to announce Read More
Western Canada Wheat field
EventsSixth Annual Precision Ag Summit Set for January 16-17 …
January 4, 2017
The 6th annual Precision Ag Summit will be held Jan. 16-17, at the North Dakota Farmers Union Conference Center in Read More
University of California Merced Professor Stefano Carpin
Hort TechRobots, People Working Together To Save Water, Enhance …
January 3, 2017
A nearly $1 million grant from the USDA is helping University of California researchers refine collaborative robotic technology that could Read More
Wade Barnes Farmers Edge using FarmCommand
Data ManagementFarmers Edge Makes Precision Ag Simple
January 3, 2017
Jon Labine of Argyle, MN, is a regional sales representative for Farmers Edge Inc., one of the latest entries in Read More