Precision Around The World

The 10th International Conference on Precision Agriculture (ICPA) was truly an international experience this year, with more than 400 attendees from 40 countries represented at the biennial event in Denver, CO. An engaged and enthusiastic crowd took in scientific presentations and poster displays, an A to Z practitioner seminars and informative general sessions, then networked during the meals and receptions throughout the event.

The tone for the conference was set at the opening general session by Dr. Raj Khosla, a professor at Colorado State University and coordinator of ICPA, who asserted the need to discover and embrace best agronomic practices and precision technology’s role in reaching that goal.

He was followed by Dr. Kenneth Cassman, director of the Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences Research at the University of Nebraska, who challenged the assumption that biotechnology will serve as the predominant underpinning for meeting this expected global food demand.

While biotech crops will certainly assume its share of the yield increase, agronomic practices also have substantially improved yield potential through better fertilizer application practices, planting regimens, and crop protection product application and timing, among other factors. Cassman believes that there is a lack of balance in the discussion — that agronomy is taking a back seat to seed technology and is not receiving the required research attention.

His points were taken a step further in a later session hosted by consultant Dr. Harold Reetz, who lamented the lack of qualified agronomic talent emerging from universities today. Reduced funding for agronomic research has served to reduce the number of research assistant opportunities, he said, leading to fewer agronomy graduates. This will be a difficult big picture trend for agriculture to deal with in the future.

Here are additional items of note and observations by the editors of PrecisionAg Special Reports:

New International Precision Association

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.

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 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 two-year terms.

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. Ted Mayfield, who toiled away on the Greenseeker and Weedseeker technologies for many years before Trimble purchased the company in 2007, said he felt 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 (N), the mother’s milk of crop nutrients. N must be applied partially in spring and partially in season, with the sidedressed in-season portion of the fertilizer 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 N applied, but in N utilization by deficient plants — in other words, more N 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 N 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, we did a special issue on GPS and at the time 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. Fortunately we did not state a timeline, which in hindsight was brilliant. Five years later, we are still plugging along.

What we 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.

We believe that we will 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.

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