What’s The Next Big Thing In Precision Ag?

Asking The Experts

Technology of all kinds is changing rapidly, and it’s a challenge to keep up and keep it all straight. So we asked some of our smartest industry friends to weigh in on the question to make sure we had all the bases covered. We gave them 250 words apiece to answer the below question.

From wireless technology to on-the-go sensors to more effective use of data, this group covered it all. We’d also appreciate your feedback … you can send your own thoughts via e-mail at [email protected].

What is the most important emerging technology that will have a significant impact on precision agriculture use and/or adoption?

1. Harold Reetz, President, Reetz Agronomics • Monticello, IL

The clear crystal ball to view the future of precision farming is elusive, but we can safely bet that it will become more than we can even dream it will be. The hardware of precision farming will continue to be more sophisticated. Use of GPS/RTK guidance systems will expand rapidly. Yield monitors, system controllers and sensor systems will continue to evolve. On-board communication and wireless Intranet data transfer around the farm and with various input and service providers will become a new resource. But the real future in precision farming will be in sharpening our skills and tools for information management. All of those sensor, monitor and controller systems generate a lot of data.

Add to it the rapid expansion of outside sources of data … weather, remote sensing imagery, photography, etc., and you soon have a challenge to sort it all out. Enter data management services. Whether local providers or regional/national/international services, we will use outside helpers who can guide us through the files of data, sort it, manipulate it, and turn it into information. Information is basically data that is in a form that can be used with models and decision aids to make better-informed management decisions.

That is the future of precision farming. Making decisions on your local fields, based on the best on-site data you can collect, and integrating that data along with outside sources to make site-specific decisions that relate the best research information to your resources and conditions … that will be the key to success with precision farming as we move forward.

2. Francis J. Pierce and Pete Nowak, Principals of AgInfomatics, LLC , Professor Emeritus, Washington State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, respectively

Fifty years ago, author Keith Morgan, in making the case for automation as essential to the future of ag, acknowledged the difficulties of this endeavor in an article in New Scientist:

“But the automation of agricultural processes is made difficult by the variable nature of environmental conditions, by the variable qualities of the raw materials and end products, by the extensive, out-of-doors nature of many of the process, by the low value of the end products, by the small scale of many agricultural enterprises, and by the farmers’ limited capital resources.”

Morgan’s assessment of farm automation was based on the notion that “when we can measure a process, we can control it.” We are now beginning to recognize that precision agriculture is a critical stage in moving toward the agricultural automation envisioned by Morgan.

Automation is the process of using information management systems to guide control systems that reduce the human element in the production process. Automation will be the outcome of the successful execution of the principles and practices of precision agriculture by farmers who must respond to the challenges similar to those described by Morgan 50 years ago. Automation through the execution of precision agriculture will be dependent on achieving the four fundamental axioms of technology innovation.

The first and most obvious is profitability. Automating production processes through precision techniques needs to generate a profit for both the producer and the private sector supporting the precision techniques. The second is convenience. Convenience refers to the ease with which a grower can integrate the new technology into a given production system and automation exudes convenience.

The third is what we like to think of as “pain relief,” or a situation where the new technology solves problems, increases the quality of life, or simplifies the management of the agricultural operation. The fourth and last axiom is that the innovation needs to result in the discovery of new knowledge which provides insights or revelations about a grower’s operation. Our hypothesis is that forms of precision agriculture that address these axioms moving toward automation will have higher and more sustained adoption rates.

3. John Fulton, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, Biosystems Engineering • Auburn University

Planting remains one of the most important farm operations since it establishes what occurs the rest of the growing season. Individual row control on planters will be one technology that enhances crop production in the future. This technology controls or drives row units independent of one another (e.g., Raven’s OmniRow) vs. the whole planter or sections being controlled concurrently. As the size of planters has increased, so has the risk of off-rate errors.

While planting technology (e.g., vacuum planters, precision metering components, singulation feedback, etc.) provides better performance today, I still think we can improve seed placement and push crops to maximum yields. The typical capabilities of this technology include variable-rate seeding and automatic section/row control. However, there are many more advantages. It provides the capacity to auto-calibrate each row on-the-go. Maintaining the target seeding rate across the planter even at a fixed rate is more accurate; most importantly while traveling a curved path where the inside and outside rows are moving at different velocities. Current displays with planter monitoring capabilities provide singulation or individual row feedback. The next step is to take this feedback and fully implement real-time, individual row control through an electric or hydraulic row drive. The result allows farmers to truly tailor seeding rates and improve seed placement. Farmers can be innovative with this technology. They can conceivably set a different target rate for each row.

4. Bruce Erickson, Associate Director, Center for Commercial Agriculture Department of Agricultural Economics Purdue University

On-the-go soil nutrient sensors have the potential to turn a page in precision farming. While guidance technologies and the related applications of automated planter row controls and sprayer boom section and nozzle controls are becoming mainstream agriculture, the site-specific part where field variability is measured and managed with variable amounts of inputs such as pesticides, seeds and fertilizers (VRT) has yet to hit its stride. Crop nutrients are a logical place for the site-specific part to prove its worth — they are one of the farmer’s biggest inputs, their use can directly influence crop responses, and there are critical environmental ramifications as well.

But it has often been difficult to profitably manage nutrients spatially. Spatially dense aerial or proximal sensing of leaf or soil color for fertilizer applications has not always correlated well with responses. And spatially-intense zone or grid soil samples sent to a lab can be cost-prohibitive. Needed are on-the-go sensors that can sample inexpensively at a high spatial resolution, measuring a factor that can be related reliably to crop responses, such as soil test values.

The value of the crop response and input savings must be more than the cost of measurement, decisionmaking and variable-rate technology. This could allow us to fulfill some of the original promises of precision farming — to reduce crop inputs in areas where inputs are sufficient, lowering costs and increase inputs in areas where they are deficient, increasing crop responses and returns.

5. Dan Frieberg, Premier Crop Systems LLC • West Des Moines, IA

Precision agriculture is ultimately about the ability to do the agronomy of crop production differently within fields. However, to date, most of precision agriculture has been about using data collected somewhere else and “pretending” that it fits every field the same.

Our agricultural history is doing replicated small plots on uniform soils and then base statewide or even regional recommendations on the averages of the responses of those plot results. Almost every decision a grower or advisor makes is based on someone else’s data.

The most powerful emerging technology is that for the first time, growers can make decisions on their own data. Data-driven decision making is going to fundamentally change crop production.

When we first started Premier Crop, I drew the comparison between what we’re doing with Premier Crop and the Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA). DHIA is a recordkeeping database system that documents production by the individual cow — same as we’re doing within areas in fields. Virtually every management decision that has been made in the dairy industry since has been based on data. Genetic selection, nutrition and herd management changed rapidly as the entire industry moved to data based decisionmaking. DHIA grew to become an entire industry’s standard operating procedure. The swine industry followed and now virtually all pork producers participate in some detailed database program. Crop production is poised to rapidly catch up with the livestock industry.

6. Robert Blair, Grower and Precision Technology Expert • Kendrick, ID

Timely Information for better management decisions is the key to a successful operation, for both the provider and customer. Information regarding weeds, diseases, nutrient and water needs will become critical in the future due to costs, environmental impact and government regulations. To obtain that information, remote sensing will have a significant impact in the years to come. Remote sensing is the use of aerial images to help provide better information for the crop advisor and the grower. The need for high-resolution images is a must to help identify problem areas that can be mapped and treated separately.

To obtain the images, Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) will play a bigger role in the future. Small, lightweight and battery-powered, they will provide the lowest cost for obtaining the information with the highest resolution images. The images can also be used for insurance claims and government compliance for USDA programs. In the future, sensors can be placed on the UAV to detect airborne diseases like rust to identify threshold levels of when to apply the proper chemical.

As agriculture rises to meet the challenge of increasing production output, resources used to grow those crops will become scarcer like water, nitrogen, phosphate, etc. and will need to be managed more efficiently. However, at the current time, government regulations are hampering the use of UAVs for commercial purposes, but research is being done so when the time is right the technology will be ready to go to work for agriculture and the world.

7. Jeremy Wilson, Technology Specialist • CropIMS • Effingham, IL

The most important emerging technology in my opinion is improved connectivity to the cab of equipment. It’s unclear whether cellular, satellite or Wi-Fi connectivity will be the ultimate winner in the race today. Once the equipment is connected, the sky is limit to the new functionality that a precision ag manufacturer can design to improve the user experience for the operators. Logistics and data transfer are the hot topics today, but that is just the beginning. If two displays can talk while working in the same field, each unit will know what the other has applied to allow two autobooms to function simultaneously. 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.

The input supply business could also provide better service to their customers from better connectivity with real time data being delivered from the cab. For example, it could be yield data to write VRT prescriptions to apply fertilizer after harvest, or planting data to prevent the mis-application of crop protection products.

We live in a connected world today and we are just now beginning to learn how this can benefit production agriculture. As new functionality becomes available, through increased connectivity, the use and adoption of precision ag equipment by growers will increase.

8. Terry Griffin, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Economics University of Arkansas • Division of Agriculture

Economically important precision ag technologies combine three things: automation, decisionmaking and optimized sampling resolution. One reason that automated guidance has been successful is that it improves operators’ quality of life and requires less skill compared to technologies such as yield monitors, grid soil sampling and variable-rate applications which require greater management abilities.

Today, the weakest links in precision ag are data management, analysis and decisionmaking because of the required intervention by highly skilled people. Now with smarter automated controllers, machinery communications with remote support (telematics/telemetry) and automated data analyses, decisions are being implemented as on-the-go sensor-based applications that provide users greater incentives to actually make use of technology.

Current sampling methods need to be replaced with systems that increase resolution while reducing time requirements, thus requiring a fundamental shift in the way we sample; especially for soil nutrients. We are able to measure only a few factors at high resolution (i.e., yield, electrical conductivity, elevation); it is important to have sensors capable of accurately measuring additional factors (soil nutrients, solar radiation, canopy temperature and even factors that we as a society have not considered yet) at similar resolutions.

Precision agriculture practitioners continually fine-tune the 4R’s (right source, right rate, right time, right place) as well as securing the “fifth R” (recordkeeping) which is important for data analysis and verification. Pooling data from across regions will yield discoveries and insights that have previously been undetected. Ultimately, technologies that improve the decision makers’ quality of life will enjoy the greatest adoption rates and usage.

9. Steve Cubbage, President, Record Harvest Enterprises, Inc. Nevada, MO

Mobile technology — more specifically, tablet technology — will impact precision agriculture more in the next few years than any other technology. Think about the convergence of technology from wireless in the cab to the central servers cataloging millions of acres of digital data. Whether the producer knows it or not, his farm has gone digital. Whether he is online or not — one thing guaranteed is that his farm is.

The thing that is changing within precision agriculture is that we are seeing producers embrace the value of data. They know that within the mounds of the digital data and colorful maps is the secret sauce for profitability in the future. The problem in the past is that precision agriculture data was processed and delivered to the producers in colored paper maps archived within three-ring binders. These become as relevant and interactive to producers as their volumes of World Book Encyclopedias from the year 1976. I believe mobile tablet technology will change that so that precision “information” does not go stale.

I find it ironic that as we think of this “wireless revolution” that is about to reboot us into Precision Ag 2.0, we still think of data management as the paper yield maps you pick up from your local seed dealer or fertility maps from your local input supplier. If we are to believe that growers are going to embrace this technology and actually manage their farms with this coming tidal wave of digital data from the field, then it has to be delivered to them in a simple and seamless way. Tablet technology will allow farmers the ability to “access” their data, manage their data and query their data in ways that we have not even imagined.

Also, with this mobile technology adoption, we must also finally accept the fact that desktop mapping software in its present form is done — over — kaput! If a grower cannot access his or her data from the Web from anywhere in the world, then it is not going to work in a modern ag world. Precision ag data must flow to and from sources other than just a single producer and his own desktop PC. With mobile technology hitting farms and fields, precision ag should be much more in sync than it is today.

10. Dave Varner, Extension Educator • University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Communication technologies will dominate the implementation and enhancement of precision agriculture in the next few years. Rapidly emerging smartphone, telematics (i.e., Slingshot), and radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies are a few examples of the real-time tools that farmers will widely adopt to remain competitive in a variety of mission crucial tasks.

These tasks will include impressing local landowners, enhancing crop yields, optimizing irrigation water use and staying abreast of global commodity markets. Farmers will have better internet connectivity, farm data accessibility, crop and equipment diagnostic support, mobile farm mapping tools and global awareness of factors impacting local crop production, marketing and utilization.

In the quest to be on the leading edge of emerging precision agriculture technologies, farmers must also be mindful of the human communication network of knowledge, experience and vision that ultimately helps everyone make the best decisions and gain the maximum return on investment for these emerging technologies. The future of fertile technology adoption resides in a high-touch, high-tech approach.

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One comment on “What’s The Next Big Thing In Precision Ag?

  1. The biggest advancement MUST be reliability. Every new “Gee Whiz” adds a layer of complexity that makes users more vulnerable to failure. The designers/builders need to look at their components and ask themselves “What will one mouse or just a tree limb or failure of another component do to the operation of this?”

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