Experts Weigh In On The State Of Precision: Part 1

Growers, retailers, consultants and manufacturers are struggling to keep up with quickly evolving technology trends in agriculture,. To help identify the top trends and most pressing needs in precision agriculture, we enlisted the opinions of key experts, giving them 400 words apiece to make their cases. Data collection, management and compatibility appeared most often, but many great points are contained in the four articles that follow.
Bruce Baier, Precision Ag Product Manager
Ag Partners, LLC, Sioux City, IA
At Ag Partners, LLC, one trend that is most important is the increased use of analysis of the information generated and gathered by precision agriculture, whether it’s from ground machines, man, satellite or others. The analysis needed to make decisions to improve yields, crop input decisions and machine efficiencies is rapidly expanding. The sheer volume of information can sometimes be overwhelming.

Because of the risk involved, many producers are looking for help in making better decisions based off their information. They want the precision agriculture equipment they have purchased to be more than just a way to control and monitor operations. We measure so many things in one to three second bits now as opposed to whole fields. Electronically gathered data, in combination with producer management items and agronomist observations all should be part of the analysis and decision making.

In order for the analysis of the information to occur, we have to make further progress in the AgGateway and AgConnectivity initiatives. Indus­try hardware and software companies have made some progress in the last few years, but nothing is more frustrating than trying to transfer data into and out of various machines and software. The need for a common structure on handling inputs, as well as the need to become more efficient in the transfer of data, are real.

We see that manufacturers are hard at work in making machines easier to operate and talk together. I see two distinct uses for the information generated by the machines: Operational and agronomic. Operationally there is so much data that is measured that the files become so large it can take hours to transfer. And sometimes it appears the agronomy part of the data can become secondary to the machine operation. Thanks to many innovations by manufacturers our producers can plant seed more accurately, maintain the same lines year-after-year, dial in their harvest operations and sustain a high level of efficiency with less fatigue. From an agronomy standpoint, we can measure many things to improve yields, provide the right inputs at the right time and research management decisions. Various sensor technologies may enable us to make on-the-fly decisions that we now have to make days or months before the season.
But, we will always need to ground truth with feet on the ground. Wea­ther, ground conditions, equipment settings, applications timing and others can factor into the equation on what impacts yields and profitability. Cooperation between manufacturers, agronomists and producers will be crucial in expanding productivity in the future.

Dennis Berglund, Crop Consultant
Centrol Crop Consulting, Twin Valley, MN
Precision ag (including GPS, imagery, variable-rate inputs, automatic steering, site-specific sampling, yield monitors and more) is revolutionary, but also evolutionary, since it is simply another step toward farming better. Precision ag can help agronomically (increasing yield and quality), economically (increasing profit) and environmentally (putting the right inputs in the right place), but there is not one type of precision ag that is “best.” And precision ag implementation is still not easy or user-friendly. The exception is autosteer, which has caught on very quickly, because it reduces grower stress, at the same time that it gives economic benefits (in seed, chemical and fuel savings).

Most of our new farm equipment now comes with precision ag equipment installed at the factory, so farmer-applied precision ag will increase compared to dealer-applied precision ag.

A key challenge we face is that our crop models need to improve, so that we have better guidelines when making precision ag decisions.

Growers are looking for help to make sense of all their data. This will cause an increased need for consultants and advisors, who have the needed agronomic, equipment and software skills, and who can ground-truth the fields and give unbiased recommendations.

We also need knowledgeable equipment dealerships to troubleshoot and set up equipment along with better compatibility between equipment and software. If equipment problems were solved and equipment worked seamlessly, then precision ag adoption would increase.

Lastly, it’s critical to remember that “It’s not the device that is important … It is the advice.” Precision equipment is merely a tool to help maximize your profit. It is the expertise and advice that will lead to good decisions.
Each farmer will find ways to use precision ag in the way that they see fit, and the art of farming will continue!

Robert Blair, Farmer
Kendrick, Idaho
What a difference a year makes. Last year, I was talking with my insurance agent and friends about preventive plant insurance … and I used it. This year, I had time in my “mobile office with a view” to reflect about ag technology and the direction it will be heading.

A year’s time also took me on an Eisenhower Fel­lowship to Argentina, Uru­guay and Brazil to learn more about precision ag, remote-sensing and unmanned air vehicles (UAVs). I met with farmers, researchers, university instructors, agribusinesses and government officials almost exclusively about Ag technology, especially UAVs and remote-sensing.

Currently, satellite and fixed winged aircraft are doing the bulk of the image gathering. However, excitement is brewing in the U.S. and globally about using UAVs for agriculture. I was also excited because I saw the first UAV in agriculture fly in Uruguay.

Last year, I was able to utilize images for my preventive plant claim. I had to show that the ground was too wet to farm and when you can’t even get into a field, having the ability to gather data was beneficial. However, this is way ahead of the insurance companies and USDA. Also, FAA does not have commercial rules at this point in time.

The good news is the rules are coming. The FAA is currently working to open up the airspace for commercial UAVs in agriculture, but with a tight leash and the length of chain to be determined. Even those in the aerial data acquisition business see the benefits of UAVs for efficiency of time and cost.

Farmers and ag businesses from Argentina to Australia to Africa to America see the potential benefits that UAVs can provide, especially when used in conjunction with current precision technologies like guidance, boom control and mapping. It reminds me when I was growing up and watching Star Trek and marveling at Mr. Spock talking to Captain Kirk on a communicator — and now we have smartphones. The same vision has happened in agriculture. And we need that vision.

Global agriculture has a tremendous challenge and responsibility to feed 9.5 billion people by 2050. This is no small task. Add to that the need to do it responsibly for the environment and society at large makes it seem almost insurmountable. By using the technologies we have, creating rules that make sense for emerging technologies and continuing the vision of progress our ancestors had we can meet this challenge head on.

Agriculture worldwide is poised for a technology explosion. Precision ag adoption is growing rapidly and UAVs are nipping at the heels. Even though the wheels of government turn slowly at least they are turning. As a matter of fact, a year’s time allowed me to finally turn my wheels … literally. My question to you is: “How fast are your wheels of progress turning in agriculture?”

Larry Eekhoff Manager, MAPS Data Management
NEW Cooperative Inc. | Fort Dodge, IA
Precision agriculture has made many advances over the past nearly two decades. Many of these have to do with GPS controlling of equipment, such as auto-steer, row shutoffs, automated boom controls, and so forth. Monitors have given us the ability to record and control applications of fertilizer, seed and herbicides, as well as measure yield, which over time have let farmers’ build a spatial history on every acre. Grid soil sampling has made us more aware of how much variability of nutrients we have in the field and have made us better managers of nutrients.

Many technological advancements have also been made in the seed and chemical industry. Glyphosate-resistant crops have made weed control something that was fairly easy for a period of time, but the use of this chemistry year after year has created some issues that have arisen over the past few years, with resistant weeds becoming more and more of an issue for today’s growers. Now, we see the need for more modes of action, and new chemistry that can be used or mixed with glyphosate to control these hard to control weeds that over time have built up resistance to glyphosate alone.

With all these advancements in technology, I feel our biggest challenge today is to look back and remember the basics. We’ve got more potential than ever to efficiently put the crop in the ground, but I think we need to concentrate more on soil fertility and what the plant takes to produce the yield we’ve come to expect. We’ve increased plant populations with the expectation that more plants will produce more bushels, but do we need to take a look at fertility recommendations that were developed decades ago?

The challenge for today’s farmer is to utilize the information that’s been collected over the years. We need to concentrate more on a systematic approach, and spend more time analyzing and planning. For instance, if we’re going to vary populations based on productivity, we also need to make sure we’re supplying those plants with their basic nutritional needs. We can’t simply make a prescription for variable-rate seeding without addressing the nutrient needs of those varying populations as well. Creating management zones requires crop nutrients to be applied to those zones as well in order to make the higher populations responsive. This requires having a plan in place long before the seed goes in the ground and before fertilizer applications are made for the coming year.

To me the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship should be something every farmer and crop advisor sets as a goal for every season. The Right fertilizer source at the Right rate, at the Right time and in the Right place. This is what it will take to make all the technology work for higher yields and higher profits.

Looks like exciting times are ahead for good crop advisors!

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