Precision Ag Technology: The Wide Open Road

We are told that providing the food, feed, fiber and fuel needs for 9 billion people (and at an increased standard of living) will require a doubling of production in the next two to three decades. That means everywhere there is now one ear of corn growing will require two ears, every soybean plant will need to double the number of flowers that survive to form a pod and every head of wheat will need to become two.

Challenging? Yes. But we have met such challenges before, and with the proper focus we will do it again.

The solution comes from sharpening our production systems to make more efficient use of the resources we have. Doubling use of resources is not going to be possible. Land will likely stay constant at best. Water resources are declining in many areas. Nutrient supplies are becoming more expensive and less plentiful. But improved genetics, and improved practices to manage the crops will help reduce resource waste.

Precision farming tools will be implemented to measure, monitor and allocate resources based upon a wide range of sensors networked to decision support centers on the farm linked to other networks in offices of input suppliers or agronomic decision support service centers.

Throughout the season, various sensors and databases will become critical inputs for management decisions. Auto-guidance and other GPS-based systems will become standard and on-board sensors for all field equipment will improve efficiency and within-machine control of all operations.

GIS-based databases for each field documenting all inputs and outputs will help fine-tune crop production decisions. And the information will be readily available on handheld communicators — such as today’s smartphones and tablets — adapted with specific features and “apps” for agricultural use. And it will all be network throughout the farming business with secure access as needed for the farmer, as well as his managers, consultants, landowners and input suppliers.

At planting, complete source, rate and positioning control of seed, fertilizer and pesticide inputs will be made possible. On-board controllers linked to sensors on the equipment will provide real-time input linked to on-farm records and various off-site databases, and they will be integrated in decision models that provide instantaneous site-specific adjustments to the controllers.

This fine-tuning of inputs and agronomic factors will help make the efficiency improvements and yield-optimization decisions to gain the next increments of yield from the new genetic materials that are themselves designed for the specific location, and may even be changed from one part of a field to another.

Benefits All Season Long

In-season monitoring of plant nutrition and pest pressures will also be fine-tuned to enable quick turn-around on decisions needed to take corrective action. Human field scouts (CCAs) will continue to be a key part of this process, but they will be using a wide range of tools such as digital cameras, drones, and robotics to make their field visits more targeted and efficient.

Drones of many types will become common in the field for capturing imagery, determining plant conditions and population density, for monitoring atmospheric gases and maybe even for collecting samples. Small, hummingbird-sized drones can zip around fields equipped with sensors or cameras to collect information very quickly and economically. Others may be the size of a bumblebee — nearly invisible, but very effective at monitoring.

Larger multi-rotor helicopters hovering over fields will help identify areas needing a closer look. Field scouts, or maybe robots, will hone in on the area needing attention for taking decisive action. Sensors in tile outlets or in the field will control drainage based upon rainfall, water table level, water flow and nitrate content, helping improve water use efficiency, reduce pollution of water bodies and reduce drought impact.

When it comes to harvest, more precision sensing and monitoring systems come into play. Yield monitors will continue to improve in performance and user interface. Most important, yield monitor data will become more important in documenting actual harvest and variability within the field. Additional grain quality factors — moisture, protein, and other components — will be monitored on-the-go and recorded with GIS coordinates for mapping future decisions and for documenting relationships with variability in soil tests, soil nutrient supplies and more.

Other Cool Stuff

All of this doesn’t even consider the potential use of nano-technology sensors to help monitor crop conditions and issue weather, moisture, nutrient or pest alerts. It doesn’t consider the capabilities of linking such tools through communication networks to provide farm-wide surveillance or multi-farm summarization of crop status or field observations.

It also doesn’t propose application of these on-farm data systems in conjunction with supercomputer applications to build databases on a state, national or global basis, but that is a real possibility with installations like the new National Science Foundation Blue Waters system at the University of Illinois. Initially targeted for complex space research, Blue Waters opens new potential for managing the huge databases agricultural models and decision systems will use in the future. Will we be comfortable with sharing such information about our farms? Will we be bold enough to make it happen? How much will it contribute to global crop production and security of our crop supplies to meet the food, feed, fiber and fuel needs of the 9 billion people on the Earth? The next few years of precision agriculture will be an exciting opportunity to test these questions.

Most of this technology is available today. We just need to be creative and integrate the pieces together. It the future it may be required for legal documentation. But it definitely has possible applications in guiding input decisions. It will be the edge top producers use to stay one-step-ahead. As it becomes more widely adopted, it will become an essential part of doing business, just as the innovative technologies 20 years ago are now common practice.

Bottom line — don’t slip off the learning curve if you want to stay in farming. Fasten your seat belt for an exciting ride.

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