Trends and Needs in Precision

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 eight 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 article that follow.

What are the most important trends and most pressing needs in precision agriculture products and practices today?


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. Indus’ try 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, ID

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?”

Rick Greene Precision Agriculture Manager
MFA Inc. | Columbia, MO

Precision agriculture has always been a little before its time. We started with nutrient and data management services in the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. Then equipment came in showing a direct return-on-investment with products like clutch and section control for planters and sprayers coupled with automatic guidance for steering accuracy. As we look to the future, the overwhelming push has been back towards data management and analysis.

So what makes this time so much different than the mid-1990s to the early 2000s? First and foremost, farmers have more of a comfort level with precision agriculture equipment and its accuracy. Second, a farmer can order the equipment straight from the factory or through an independent service provider. Third, the equipment is more user-friendly with more precision ag specialists in the market to help support the products. Fourth, the computer processing capacity has increase exponentially. Back in 1997, I was learning SST Toolbox on 386 MB processor vs. the 6 GB processor you can get today.

But today’s market is not the same as the mid-1990s. As commodity, seed, fuel and fertilizer prices continue to rise, efficiency and increased productivity is becoming more vital to American farmers competing in a global economy. In order for the producer to compete, they will have to utilize technology tools such as data management and analysis to better understand their inputs and placement on their fields.

A clutch or boom section control system can save the producer anywhere between 5% to 15% with a savings of $15 or more per acre on inputs like seed and chemical. Whereas data management can help the producer select varieties that will outperform others on specific soil types by at least five bushels per acre resulting in a gain of $25 per acre based on $5 corn. By combining input savings and management, a farmer has the potential to gross over $35 per acre. This allows the farmer to stay ahead of global competition by maximizing yield, managing inputs and preserving the environment to ensure farmers with a sustainable way of farming.

Data management is not without its own challenges. It takes an accurate history of data to make an appropriate recommendation for a farmer’s field. Some of the new wireless technology has helped in providing an easy way to transfer the recommendation to the monitor in the tractor cab, but current wireless networks are having a hard time handling the volume of data. Another challenge is what actually happens in the heat of the battle. Does the recommendation get used with the designated variety? Then the challenge of getting the data back into the system via flashdrive or wireless network. In the end, it all comes down to analyzing the data and making smarter management decisions for the next year.

Brandon Hunnicutt Farmer and Chairman
Nebraska Corn Growers Association | Lincoln, NE

Precision ag has come a long way in the last 15 years but it still feels like it is in its infancy. While we see a large amount of data coming into the farms on a daily basis no matter what operation we are doing, we seem to be not properly using this data on a wide scale. This is where I see the most pressing need right now in precision ag.

How do farmers and ag companies effectively utilize the information that they have to make the most informed decision based on agronomics and economics? We have a lot of pretty maps but not necessarily a lot of legitimate data. This problem becomes compounded if one is using multiple companies for seed, fertilizer, chemical, etc., and the lack of communication between those companies.

This leads to what I see as the most important trend in precision ag, which is the total adoption and use of smartphones, tablets and cloud computing to do all of the work. There needs to be a move by companies to develop their own apps to be able to tie right into the monitors in the cabs or eventually the cabs themselves. Precision Planting has done this with its FieldView app and 20/20 Seed Sense. One can monitor row-by-row planting data in real time on a map. It allows one to see what is going on in the field while also seeing the other monitor with all the numbers. It also allows one to put in notes in a specific point in a field. Also, one can update a Seed Sense monitor in the field through an iPad.

This is where I believe the trend is going: Complete mobility to be able to monitor, store and share information at anytime, anywhere in the world. The data will now be in the ag producers hands to carry with them at all times. It will allow us to be able to more closely work with our retailers, scouts and others to make more timely decisions when needed.

Nathan Woydziak Precision Ag Manager
Crop Quest, Inc. | Dodge City, KS

Here’s my view of the most important trends in precision agriculture from my perspective as a precision agriculture specialist and consultant:

  • Precision Ag (PA) is constantly evolving; a positive trend keeps the technology fresh. The ability to change and easily adapt is vital in a fast paced world. If you want to stay competitive in this industry you have to accept change and to an extent create it. With the increasing rate of change in the ag industry it can be difficult to stay up-to-speed; by investing time and resources in the PA tools a producer is helping ensure the future of his operation.
  • Society in general has become increasingly familiar and accepting of conveniences that technology offers. This leads people to a better understanding and increased comfort level with the PA tools.
  • Interest in PA by the next generation returning to the family farm. This seems pretty simple, but it’s natural for these younger farmers to feel more comfortable with the PA tools. They have been exposed to this type of technology their entire life. To them a world without Droids, iPads and laptops is something they have never known. This familiarity with technology makes it simple for them to integrate it into their farming strategy.
  • Understanding of the benefits that the PA tools can provide. Producers and consultants continue to gain a better understanding of how the PA tools improve the efficiency of an operation.
  • PA tools are simpler and more standard. The tools we use in PA are becoming more standard practice. This leads to the idea that as we progress the current PA tools will simply be viewed as an integrated part of normal farming. This doesn’t mean that PA will gradually fade away, there will always be innovators bringing new technology to the ag industry.

Now, here’s what I think needs to happen to advance precision agriculture in the future:

  • Continue to educate and demonstrate the benefits the technology brings. Only a fraction of the producers in our area take full advantage of the benefits PA tools offer. There are dollars being left on the table and the innovators will be able to capitalize on this fact.
  • Industry data standards. The result? It will become simpler for parties involved in the collection, transfer, interpretation and analysis of the data.
  • Increased collaboration within PA sector (dealers, consultants, service providers, growers). It has been our experience that a team approach to integrating the PA tools generally results in the most satisfied client. Bringing together the hardware knowledge, technical skills and the agronomic knowledge requires effort on the part of Crop Quest, but the synergies that result from having a team of professionals focused on providing the client with a quality service makes it worthwhile. When the client is pleased with the products and the services, then everyone at the table wins. This is an area that Crop Quest is continually exploring.

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