Ag Technology’s Leading Indicators

By its nature, precision agriculture is pretty innovative stuff. Using technology to make raising crops more productive and cost-effective can border on what would have seemed like science fiction not too many years ago. This is particularly true now that the real world has become interconnected with the technical one through such systems as GPS and real-time handheld devices. Today, precision agriculture systems can offer users application accuracy to within less than one inch or accurately steer ag equipment through a field with minimal input from human operators.

But according to Mike Wilson, Webster Valley Service Center area marketing coordinator for Wabash Valley Service Co. in Browns, IL, this is just the tip of technological iceberg, so the speak. Borrowing a line of the old Bachman, Turner, Overdrive song, he says the precision agriculture world ain’t seen nothing yet.

“We thought we were at a “gee, whiz” level in the precision agriculture market in terms of technological advances during the past 15 years,” says Wilson. “But that’s nothing compared to what we are getting ready to do now.”

Indeed, some market observers believe new precision agriculture innovations will help pull the general ag economy out of its predominantly hard-to-predict cycle. Furthermore, this growth should have a more widespread reach.

“Farming operations embracing increased productivity through technology will help drive the world’s economic recovery,” Ray O’Connor, president/CEO of Topcon Positioning Systems, said during a recent ag industry event. “The current economic recession provides an incredible window of opportunity for forward-thinking companies in the agriculture, construction, survey, and civil engineering markets. In tough times, increasing productivity through the acceptance of technological breakthroughs will be the difference in success and failure, the difference in being competitive and trailing the competition. The economic turnaround will be technology-fueled, driven by the products of forward-thinking companies and forward-thinking businesses that buy the roducts that increase productivity.”

According to Brad Murray, precision agriculture specialist for Landmark Agronomy Services, Juda, WI, this growth curve is already starting to appear. Toward the end of 2008 and into the early part of 2009, he says precision agriculture customers were still concerned with high input costs and the sluggish ag economy. Therefore, many of them were extremely cautious when looking to purchase precision agriculture technologies for their businesses.

“But as the crops in the Midwest began to look like they would be OK and commodity prices moved higher over the summer, we started to see stronger interest again for technical services,” says Murray.

Satellite Rebound

Among precision agriculture services, he says, one of the most requested recently has been satellite imagery. According to Murray, Landmark offered this technology to its grower-customers back in the late 1990s for a brief time but didn’t stick with it. “At that time, we thought it didn’t fit what our customers wanted from a precision agriculture program because of the delay in the data gathering capabilities,” he says. “So we didn’t keep it.”

Indeed, satellite imagery was a declining technology until very recently. According to statistics compiled in the annual Purdue University/CropLife magazine Precision Agriculture Survey, satellite imagery was being offered by more than 20% of ag retailers in the early 2000s. However, by 2007, this percentage had fallen below 19%. But by the time of the 2009 survey, this figure had ebounded significantly to 30.3%.

“We decided to go back to this technology because there is more real-time data available than there used to be,” says Murray. “Now, we are getting lots of interest because satellite imagery can help customers more effectively apply things such as variable-rate nitrogen to their fields.”

Fresh from the InfoAg Conference and a subsequent sensor seminar conducted by Purdue University, Harold Reetz, president of the Foundation for Agronomic Research thinks that integration of technologies and data are growing in prominence.

“Sensor systems are getting better and more sophisticated, as is controller technology, and those really fit together. If you have better sensors and better controllers you can do more things.”

An example from the Purdue conference Reetz cited was the development of a system that integrates remote sensing imagery with ground sensor and other data using algorithms that deliver on-the-go rate decisions that could apply to seeding, fertilizer, or crop protection.

“They are putting data to work invisible ways — not just to read one set of data but to blend it with other kinds of data before it’s run the controller,” says Reetz. “That’s really exciting stuff.”

Application efficiency is also behind another fast growing precision agriculture technology — automatic boom shut-off. “Growers want to know that what they are having applied is not being wasted,” says Wabash Valley’s Wilson. “Auto boom shut off does just that, as well as provides a detailed real-time record for later review.”

Of course, this speaks to a larger trend within the precision agriculture community — what Topcon’s O’Connor calls total asset management. “Remote asset management is a crucial element in maximizing the machine production on every job site,” he said, talking about the company’s system for performing this task. “Topcon Tierra is a Web-based telematics service that provides real-time information on every piece of rolling stock on any farming operation in the world.”

Micro Programs, Macro Results

Still, total asset management might be only part of the whole precision agriculture picture. According to Wabash Valley’s Wilson, his company is looking at some new programs that will be able to micro-manage farmland at the touch of a key stroke. “Users will be able to look at their farms one acre at a time,” he says. “For instance, a user may have 14 different soil types on their 40-acre farm. This program will be able to dissect this information and break it down acre by acre so the service provider and grower can determine the best method for getting all 40 acres to achieve their maximum crop yield potential.”

Even more far-reaching than this is what Wilson calls bench-marking. “This would be a total database compiled by growers from multiple sources that would look at specific seed hybrids over a broad area,” he says. “The program would look at the yield results by management conditions, allowing growers to see how they rate vs. everybody else in the database. This way, customers could use real-time data to see real-time results and determine if there are any problems that need to be fixed to improve their ranking.”

Finally, smart phone technology could become more commonplace for position location in the field. “I think high accuracy positioning using smart phones will become dirt cheap within the next few years,” says Landmark’s Murray. “We may eventually get to the point where our customers will be able to use this technology on the gadget side to determine their field position with relative ease.”

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