#InfoAg2016: Random Thoughts, Observations
Well, there you have it, folks. Another summer rounds third and heads for home (NFL regular season here we come!), another InfoAg Conference is officially in the books.
The Year of our Lord 2016 saw for the first time the U.S.’ premier showcase of all things precision ag tech partner up with the International Society of Precision Agriculture’s (ISPA) 13th International Conference on Precision Agriculture – a bi-annual conference and trade show – making way for standing-room only crowds and a decidedly higher-level dialogue in the breakout sessions. And the trade show floor seemed more packed than ever.
Now that the show is well in the rear-view mirror (and we’ve all had ample time to work off all those orders of St. Louis toasted ravioli), here’s a few general observations about the show that standout upon further reflection:
New Technologies Will Change Farming By 2020
PrecisionAg Plenary speaker Jack Uldrich, an “acclaimed global futurist” and a past InfoAg attendee, delivered the kind of keynote address that I suspect many make the journey to InfoAg every summer to see and hear.
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Uldrich covered 10 technologies that will change farming (and pretty much all aspects of life) in the next four years. By 2020, Uldrich believes, technology will have advanced 1,000 times faster than it already had in the previous 100 years, and ag retailers – really everybody – needs to stay on top of these technologies if they wish to stay competitive in tomorrow’s marketplace.
The jump from 4G to 5G cellular connectivity (expected by 2020), the coming proliferation of Augmented (think Pokémon Go) and Virtual Reality (the Oculus Rift headset – General Motors is reportedly eliminating auto dealerships by using VR test drive programs, and the Des Moines Register recently launched a VR application that allows urban city dwellers to physically tour a working farm from anywhere in the world), advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) mobile platforms that will give us the answers to questions before we even know that we want to ask them, to something as practical as Nano Filter technology that has huge implications in phosphorus removal from our watersheds – Uldrich’s underlying message was that farming is changing just as rapidly as the rest of the world.
“The world of ag and farming has already changed immensely,” Uldrich advised. “It’s as weird as a red spade and you need to see that and recognize it and react to it.”
For those struggling to get their arms around all these new technologies, Uldrich suggested finding a “reverse-mentor,” or someone from a younger generation that is perhaps a little bit more adept at using some of these life-changing technologies on a daily basis.
“Change requires humility, because what worked well yesterday won’t necessarily work tomorrow,” he said in closing. “We all need a little humility.”
Weather Data Makes Big Splash
There have always been Farm Management Information Systems (FMIS) outfits at InfoAg that promise to integrate the somewhat-elusive weather data layer to deliver ROI and increased yields (Climate Corp. and Farmers Edge come to mind), but this year there seemed to be an abundance of firms focused on helping growers and consultants make management decisions based on field-centric weather data.
IBM’s recently-acquired, Watson-powered The Weather Company made its InfoAg debut, as did Weather Decision Technology’s (WDT) SkyWise, among others. With advanced, hyper-local weather metrics more accessible to the industry than ever before, the days of basing decisions that could cost or gain a producer tens of thousands of dollars on the free government agency regional weather data like NOAA reports and the like are looking to be over.
Look out for coverage on The Weather Company from PrecisionAg.com in the coming months.
Drones Remain A Hot Button
With FAA’s more-accessible-to-the-masses Part 107 rules for commercial drone operations set to go into effect August 29, there was a fair amount of general optimism around drones and how they will end up fitting into the American Farmscape (accompanied, of course, by many, many doubters and naysayers).
Even for something as practical as using a quadcopter to assess herbicide drift damage (Enlist and Xtend could make this a viable use-case when they come online if drift events increase as some have predicted), lead researcher Joby M. Czarnecki, Ph.D., Mississippi State University, admitted it’s “just another tool to help producers…sometimes (it’s) appropriate, and sometimes not.”
Czarnecki found (based on a real-world drift event where 510 acres of corn were wiped out by clethodim) that the drones worked well in assessing the extent of herbicide drift damage, as well as pinpointing the cause of the drift (when combined with prevailing wind data). On-foot tissue sampling (to determine residue levels in-plant) and looking at combine yield data post-harvest to get the full picture on the drift event were still required, however.
Meanwhile, Measure VP of Agriculture and longtime friend to PrecisionAg.com Robert Blair presented on what farmers and retailers can expect under Part 107, and even with the new law he maintains his longtime belief that service-based is the way to go for ag retailers. He also shared that FAA Part 135 – which will be required for anyone that wishes to apply crop protection products via a drone with spray capabilities such as Yamaha’s RMax or the visually-stunning DJI Agras MG-1 – is on FAA’s radar.
“I think a lot of guys are going to go out and take the test, get their Part 107 certification to fly commercially, then crash and the drone will sit in the corner at the dealership, collecting dust,” he said. “Hiring a company that provides drone imagery as a professional service, with experienced pilots and crew, is still going to be the ag retailer’s best bet.”
Blair also believes the ag drone industry would benefit greatly from FAA approval of beyond-line-of-sight and night flights.
“Aerial applicators don’t fly at night – that airspace is wide open.”
Nitrogen Models and Management Zones
It seems with the price of nearly every input a farmer needs on the way up – seed, chemicals, specialty liquid fertilizers and stabilizers – there was a lot of focus this year (and not just at InfoAg, industry-wide this author would argue) on managing nitrogen, not only from an environmental standpoint, but also from an economical/ROI point of view.
Oklahoma State University’s Dr. Brian Arnall (coincidentally our 2016 Precision Ag Awards of Excellence Educator of the Year honoree) presented on moving from grid-based to zone-based management.
“You should know the limiting factor in that field – whether its nitrogen or drainage issues, whatever it is, and chase it down with a big stick,” Arnall said. “If you are basing your rates on crop nitrogen removal you are just fertilizing the soil, not the plants.”