Precision Agriculture

Written by: Peter Schott of Myriad Mobile

I remember helping my dad load the drill with wheat. It was pretty high-tech stuff to load each compartment with an auger hooked onto the truck, then spreading the wheat evenly between compartments using your hands and a bucket to finish the job. The planting population was set through a process that felt like magic to me at the time (for a refresher click here) but in reality it was just good old math. Once everything was calibrated we were off to plant the seed in the ground, waiting for the crops to emerge and grow.

My how things have changed. I spoke at several conferences this year, talking about three pivotal moments in agriculture: GMO crops, GPS (and data!), and mobile technology. The early 90s gave us the X-Files, Branch Davidians, NAFTA, Mrs. Doubtfire, and GPS technology for agriculture. Yield mapping became hugely popular as companies raced to build devices for combines that would collect the data. Some of you might still have yield data from those days sitting on your monitor[1]. But this combination of technology was ground-breaking. It allowed growers to correlate field-level activity with specific places in the field, giving way to possibilities of data collection, performance evaluation, and testing new ways of farming.

This technology has come to be known as “precision agriculture”. It commonly refers to the concept of observing, measuring, and responding to variability in crops. Basically it revolves around precise methods of data collection, decision-making, and actions a farmer can take throughout the season to maximize yield, reduce costs, and be friendly to the environment.

Recently I had the opportunity to meet with Shane Sharpe of Plains Grain and Agronomy and Ted Brandt, a local grower who previously worked at Plains Grain and Agronomy as a Precision Ag Specialist. Shane manages the Precision Ag department, leading the charge for technology and innovation for precision agriculture at Plans Grain and Agronomy. This type of technology is essential for Plans Grain and Agronomy to work with growers, providing technological innovations that are critical for growers. Ted understands the importance of this technology both as an former employee of Plans Grain and Agronomy and a farmer himself. “This technology,” he remarked, “is the future of our business.”

Growing up on a farm and watching technology progress, even I was amazed at how this technology has become more powerful in the past three years. A group like Plans Grain and Agronomy can program trials into the farmers equipment, testing variations of population and fertilizer that even a few years ago would have been manual operations. As a former seed dealer running these trials, it brought back memories of sticking flags in fields, manually setting population/rate information, then manually clipping that data from results after the season was over. Now it’s a matter of entering the right numbers into a system, then viewing the data as it’s automatically collected and distributed throughout the growing season. This is crucial for Plans Grain and Agronomy’s work with growers. It presents both a challenge and an opportunity for Shane and his team.

“This type of technology pushes us to do more work face to face with growers. You can give them imagery but they need to understand it. To look back and say did that trial work?” -Shane Sharpe

Using Climate Corporation’s software, Plans Grain and Agronomy is able to monitor field activity, enter trial information, and work directly with growers on a field by field basis. They are able to track information for a field on a seed by seed basis. It’s pretty impressive when you think about a 100 acre field, planted at 32,000 plants per acre – this is 3.2M data points!

Each square in this image represents one seed. One grower had an issue with plant emergence. He was able to look at the data and verify that a seed had been planted in each location. Turns out a gopher was the culprit and had displaced the seeds.

It probably wasn’t this one but you get the idea.

When used correctly, Precision Agriculture technology presents big opportunities for growers. They are able to change almost everything about how they farm to reduce costs and control inputs. Where previously a farmer would apply nitrogen early in the season, they are now able to hold off on certain applications, to either conserve costs or push for higher yields depending on how the weather and other conditions are impacting that year.

Tune in next month for a closer look at some of the hardware being used to collect and implement the recommendations from the data being collected.

[1] This is a bit of an inside joke for farming, many people have yield monitors but hardly use the data. Many people haven’t even taken the data off the monitor, let alone import it and actually USE it for decisions.