New Technologies vs. Agronomic Knowledge in Precision Agriculture

As the days are getting longer and the temperature is starting to rise, Australian broadacre growers are gearing up for another summer crop season. The Australian winter has been extremely dry in most areas, with a lot of growers receiving no significant rainfall between March and October. This means that winter crop yields are down and prospects for dryland summer crop plantings are not looking good. However, irrigated growers are looking at decent amounts of water available in most major dams, and with prices of cotton and other commodities holding up, they are hoping for another good year.

One of many decisions that growers have to make pre-season this year, is how much “new technology” spending to budget on, and where exactly to use this budget. As the range of new technologies available to assist growers becomes longer and longer, the choice of which new technology to adopt becomes ever harder. Under new technologies, I categorize any technology that is available now but is not directly replacing another (older technology). Some examples include in-field sensors, NDVI images, and yield/soil maps. I have been reading a lot of opinions about the agronomist vs. new technology debate recently and whether these new technologies will replace agronomists. Can they really?

As growers generally only invest in those things that can make or save them money, how can new technology investments be rationalized? Are they expected to increase yields, decrease inputs, or maybe cut some other type of spending? One of the first metrics of any new technology that growers tend to look at in my experience, is the amount of work they will need to perform. Drones are a prime example of a technology that most growers only tend to use for ‘hobby’ usage or as a ‘nice to have’ — employing them for scouting or other purposes on scale simply takes more time than most can afford at this stage. However, as technologies become less labor intensive (e.g., more autonomous in the case of drones), adoption and usage will change as well.

The other question that often comes up when looking at any new technology together with a grower is: “so how will this save me money or which other cost does this allow me to cut out?” And often the answer is not as straight forward as the question. In the long run you might be able to save on certain inputs, for example, but in the short to medium term it often means that you target your inputs better, are able to make better decisions, or aim to improve yields. You might not be able to make a direct savings as such. A part of this discussion is the often heard phrase: “so if I get all this data I don’t need an agronomist anymore, right?” Although often jokingly said, the question arises more and more often, and where does the traditional agronomist fit in with technology?

I firmly believe that agronomists play a major role in any cropping operation and, notwithstanding all new technology available, that role is not about to get any smaller. Sure, with a lot of field sensors available, for example, it might become easier and quicker to scout certain field conditions. And other technologies such as moisture probes, NDVI imagery, and yield maps all provide a great snapshot of information to agronomists as well. But this information all still needs to be ground-truthed and analyzed. All the information a map shows needs to be verified and, taking in an enormous amount of other factors, the agronomist and grower have to make a decision.

We are a long way off, however, from having all this technology replace agronomists. Sure, it might make agronomists a lot quicker and more efficient in making certain decisions and yes, it might mean that agronomists will spend some more time in front of a computer. But the future where you have a large amount of IOT devices feeding data into a Big Data Cloud and an AI platform that makes the decisions for you, is not here yet. Will we get there? I am not sure, but most people didn’t know 30 years ago what they would be able to do with a smartphone in 2017 either, so nothing can be ruled out.

So which new technologies should a grower invest in and what are the expectations that growers can have with adopting them? Agronomists are well-placed to answer these questions. As they already have a close relationship with their growers, they will have a good idea of what might be needed to improve production and which technologies will fit well with the existing way of operating.

So no, your agronomist will not be doing your agronomy from his beach chair in the near future and yes, agronomists do welcome farmers investing in new technologies that enable them to make better decisions and improve production. I for one think that it is very exciting to see which metrics we will be able to collect reliable data on in the near future and how this will allow us to enhance our decision making process!

For more information, feel free to contact me on [email protected].

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