Thoughts From The 10th International Conference on Precision Agriculture

It was truly an international experience at the conference this year, with more than 40 countries represented in Denver at the biennial International Conference on Precision Agriculture. Here are a few of the most interesting observations I made this week during the two and a half days of the event:

Stand Tall
The tone was set from the beginning presentation — we’re going to need to feed a lot more people in 40 years, predicted at more than 9 billion by 2050 — and everyone attending the conference needs to take that role to heart. Even the lunchtime entertainment, an Indiana farmboy turned comedian named Damian Mason, reminded the audience that after churning through dozens of 20-minute research summaries, rubber chickens and reception cocktail chats, the mission couldn’t be clearer — you’re feeding the world folks, be proud and have at it.

Creation of the ISPA
Many months of work and coordination culminated in the christening of a new organization, the International Society of Precision Agriculture (ISPA). Sponsored by Colorado State University, the Foundation for Agronomic Research, and the International Plant Nutrition Institute, the ISPA’s mission is to advance the science and practice of precision agriculture globally.

Dr. Raj Khosla, who has been primarily responsible for reestablishing the links between international precision agriculture educators, universities and research that had been fading since the untimely passing of Dr. Pierre Robert in 2003, was rightly voted in as the association’s first president. His supporting cast includes Dr. John Stafford, editor of the International Journal of Precision Agriculture as president-elect, Nicholas Tremblay, research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada as secretary, and Angela Guidry, soil service manager and field research scientist at SGS North America as treasurer. All will serve a two-year term.

Formalizing an organization was a great idea, because international research desperately needs to be coordinated and shared more readily. And frankly, it will necessarily take pressure off Dr. Khosla to personally maintain the momentum toward international cooperation and networking that he worked so hard to restart.

On-The-Go Sensors On The Go
The hardware is sound, the algorithms make sense, and the market is paying attention. On the go sensor technology was one of the most discussed technologies at the conference, and after more than a decade of work it is inching closer to the mainstream for use in nitrogen application. Talking to Ted Mayfield, who toiled away on the Greenseeker and Weedseeker technologies for many years before Trimble purchased the company in 2007, he feels that the technology is turning the corner and poised to gain wider acceptance.

It won’t be an easy road forward. One psychological challenge has been the required change in mindset for the grower about applying nitrogen, the mother’s milk of crop nutrients. N must be applied partially in spring and partially in season, with the sidedressed in-season portion allocated automatically and instantaneously by the sensor . Where sidedressing is not traditionally practiced, there’s an additional equipment requirement.

Then there’s the fact that the payback is often not in a reduction in nitrogen applied, but in nitrogen utilization by deficient plants — in other words, more nitrogen is used than was originally planned. But the resulting increase in yield from feeding deficient plants creates the payback. Ag Leader’s Roger Zielke, who’s heading up research work on the OptRx sensor in partnership with Holland Scientific, says recent research on wheat is indicating that a substantial dollar per acre benefit will be realized once the harvest is in. That’s taking into consideration the additional expense of more nitrogen used against what looks to be a significant boost in yield.

Bottom line is, in-season N application through the use of on the go sensors is worth a serious look.

Wireless — Can We All Just Get Along?
Back in 2005 I predicted that repeatable (RTK level) global positioning signal access would evolve into a utility like electricity that would make it more available and useful to growers and the individuals and businesses that serve them. Being of some experience with technology adoption I did not state a timeline, which in hindsight was brilliant. Five years later we are still plugging along.

What I did not foresee was the proliferation of cell-based RTK, and the revelation that paring a whole host of capabilities and connectivity solutions and riding on the cell-based signal would not only become a reality, but proliferate in rapid fashion. The year 2010 has become the year when wireless everything, from GPS to data transfer to Internet access to vehicle tracking, is becoming a reality. In the rush to climb onto the bandwagon, solutions are rolling out that range widely in price, compatibility, and completeness of offering.

I think we’ll see a real sorting out of technologies and players in the near term, so dig deep and ask a lot of questions if you’re taking the plunge on these wireless solutions. I’m guessing that the Farm Progress Show will be buzzing about this topic, and that manufacturers will have a lot to show prospective buyers.

The PrecisionAg Institute sponsored the fourth annual PrecisionAg Awards of Excellence, which I got to present at the conference lunch in front of the entire group. It was a tremendous thrill to honor excellent individuals and companies, including Illinois grower Ken Dalenberg, the OptiGro team at Jimmy Sanders, and Dr. Terry Griffin from the University of Arkansas.

But it was particularly gratifying to present two legacy awards this year to two remarkable individuals. Dr. Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer today can more often be found globetrotting to exotic locations like Africa and Afghanistan, working with the local ag institutions to upgrade curriculums and, in the case of the latter, literally rebuild the ag schools. But back in the early 1990s he was hard at work on trying to find the benefits of early guidance and variable rate technologies. The book he edited, PrecisionAg Profitability, still has a place on my bookshelf.

The other legacy award went to Dr. Harold Reetz, who has done more to bring people, governmental agencies, organizations, and companies together than almost anyone ever has in precision agriculture. He was the catalyst for the InfoAg Conference. Science is nothing if not applied, and Harold has spent a career shining a light on those best ideas and getting them on the table for discussion.

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