The Integration Quest

History is littered with failed attempts to predict the future. Of course, this problem is compounded by any predictions when it comes to technology, particularly since this field tends to see advances take place at near the speed of light. For example, just a decade ago, who would have predicted just how interconnected the world-at-large would be in 2011 thanks to technology leaps forward in portable smart devices and the Internet?

Since it’s very technology heavy, predicting how the future for precision agriculture will play out is equally difficult. As Harold Reetz, president of Reetz Agronomics, Monticello, IL, said in a recent interview: “The clear crystal ball to view the future of precision farming is elusive.”

But that’s not to say that market experts are completely lost when it comes to seeing the future for precision ag. As Reetz added: “But we can safely bet that it will become more than we can even dream it will be.”

Mike Wilson, specialty products marketing coordinator for Wabash Valley Service Co, Browns, IL, agrees with Reetz’s observation, pointing out that the industry has only scratched the surface with many of its technologies. “I do believe, though, that how we use [these technologies] is where the advances will come,” says Wilson. “We started down this precision path many years ago with a very limited number of assets, but a great many ‘pie in the sky’ possibilities. Now that we have brought those and many other tools to the marketplace, we have to figure out how we manage all this information.”

Drowning In Data

In his mind, Wilson believes that the continuing effort at database integration will be the precision ag industry’s top tech trend going into 2012 and beyond. “I still am of the mind-set that this is our biggest hurdle to cross,” he says. “We now have more information gathered and geo-referenced than we can handle without an integration program. The information we gain from remote sensing, on-the-go sensor controls, as-applied data, tissue testing, soil testing, yield data, herbicide data and foliar nutrition data means nothing without a way to clearly and concisely manage it and put the information to use.”

Sid Parks, manager, precision farming for GROWMARK, Bloomington, IL, also thinks the time is right for database integration to become the key driver for the precision ag marketplace as a by-product of the quest for higher crop yields. “I see more producers interested in improved productivity through enhanced input management and using all the tools of precision to help monitor and measure these inputs,” says Parks. “With higher commodity prices, there is more emphasis on maximizing efficiency through more bushels rather than cutting inputs to minimize expenses or hitting some theoretical economic response.”

Luckily, say industry insiders, this connectivity is beginning to pick up steam. “Another trend is that growers are starting to understand the value of precision ag data,” says Jeremy Wilson, technology specialist for Crop IMS, Effingham, IL. “Companies such as Crop IMS have known this for a long time, but the data side of our business is growing faster than ever. With tools such as Raven’s Slingshot, Trimble’s Connected Farm and John Deere’s JD Link, the growers are able to see the possibilities of using data to make better decisions.”

GROWMARK’s Parks also sees this trend moving forward quickly. “Companies are at least talking today via groups such as Ag Gateway and trying to make it less troublesome to connect devices and move or share pertinent data from one device to another and to data management products,” he says. “This all results in improved data management technologies.”

“In the beginning of the precision ag movement, we tried to get stuff to work,” continues Parks. “Now it basically does, but interoperability is still a challenge to some. However, since the beginning, we’ve struggled getting viable data from the combines, planters, etc. in a timely fashion. When we did, it was often lacking something or poorly documented beyond a column called rate. The benefit will be to all users so that we don’t spend as much time trying to get pieces and parts to work and can devote more attention to analysis and recommendations.”

Looking For More Guidance

The second major precision ag trend in the Tech Top 5 for 2011 is the increasing sophistication of guidance systems. According to Reetz, “the use of GPS/RTK guidance systems will expand rapidly.” In the past few years, precision ag experts have identified the desire for better automatic steering systems as one of the key industry trends. For 2011 and beyond, however, market watchers believe the technology focus will shift from automatic steering systems in the cab to the guidance systems that drive them.

“Related to that technology, I see continued adoption of high quality RTK/GPS for automatic and assisted steering technologies and for implementation of the finer resolution control,” says GROWMARK’s Parks. “Switching from FM radio-based systems to correction by Internet/modem-based solutions not only provides better performance of the RTK signals, but will also provide users the ability to transmit data in the field and eventually in real time.”

Speaking of real time, this quest ties into the third trend for this year’s Tech Top 5 — the growth of smart phones and similar mobile devices. In our 2010 report, observers identified the increasing use of iPhones and Blackberries among agricultural experts as one of the up-and-coming trends. Based upon the evidence, the popularity of smart phones and tablets has grown substantially during the past 12 months, with multiple apps now available covering everything from commodity prices to weather reports. And more are on the way.

“One of the most significant trends I have seen in the precision ag industry is the increased use of tablets or mobile tools,” says Crop IMS’ Wilson. “I believe that the tablets will be used more than anyone would have ever guessed just eight months ago. Several precision ag companies have released mobile tools for the tablet market. These devices will allow companies to deliver data and information much more timely than we have in the past.”

With both the trends towards improved guidance systems and the use of smart devices, Wilson foresees even better data management possibilities ahead in the future. “Once the equipment is connected, the sky is the limit to the new functionality that a precision ag manufacturer can design to improve the user experience for the operators,” he says. “The connectivity in the cab will also allow the operator to do necessary business to manage his operation that was once limited to his office where he had an Internet connection.”

A Boom Controls Boom

The fourth top tech trend in 2011 say experts is the increased use of automatic boom section controls. Although this technology dates back a few years now, proposed changes in the ways that growers and custom applicators can apply crop protection products or nutrients around waterways and neighboring fields coming from national and local governments have substantially increased interest in this area.

Furthermore, says GROWMARK’s Parks, this interest is likely to increase in the years ahead as agricultural practices become more scrutinized by regulators and lawmakers. “There is definitely interest in increased adoption of boom section and planter-clutch controls, giving applicators and producers greater resolution control of crop protection application and planting,” he says. “Improved efficiency, reduction in over/under application or planting along plant rows, waterways, etc., plus the ability to better manage population while planting, will all be considered benefits.”

The fifth top tech trend is something of a throwback — variable-rate application (VRA) seeding. According to Douglas Nace, crop and GIS consultant for Crop Production Services, Washington Court House, OH, part of this trend’s recent popularity ties the ever-increasing price of seed — and a desire to not waste a single one. But in 2011, the growth in this trend could have been spurred on by the rash of extremely wet weather which plagued much of the Midwest during the spring, which severely curtailed the planting window for many growers and increased their need for more precise seed planting when the weather finally cleared up.

But there may have been other factors at work as well, he adds. “In my area, VRA seeding has taken off due to the variability of soil types, nutrient levels and the availability of new equipment,” says Nace. “Everyone has been and still is gathering data to make the best recommendations.”

In the end, says Wabash Valley’s Wilson, the Tech Top 5 in precision agriculture boils down to one very simple concept — make production agriculture easier and more profitable. “Growers want information on how to not only maximize yield, but maximize the use of each product they apply,” he says. “Be it a pesticide or a nutrient, the grower wants the most bang for his buck and he now has the tools to enable him to do that on a farm, field or subfield level. The only limitations are his willingness and aptitude or money — what is economical on his farm. With our current climate of regulation, I think the grower willing to use these tools will be ahead of the curve and can be more proactive in compliance with future regulations instead of reactive.”

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