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Using Technology to Improve Crop Management

Throughout all segments of agriculture, farmers are finding the key to management today and preparing for tomorrow involves the use of technology.

See how agriculture is adopting new advancements to increase productivity and profitability.

Adopting Precision Ag

When Lora Howell of Ohio found herself holding the reigns of the family farm, she quickly realized it needed a technology upgrade.

She and her husband had started the farm 25 years prior. Things had changed.

To offset the cost of the tech upgrades, Howell entered the Tech My Farm contest through Ag Leader Technology, and ultimately claimed the prize of $25,000 in ag tech equipment.

Howell hired a Precision AgriServices, Inc. consultant and set about prioritizing her needs.

OnTrac3 Assisted Steering helped her reduce operator fatigue and manage inputs. An InCommand 1200 display, with its 12.1-inch touch screen, helped her track planter accuracy and seed variety performance. SureStop electric clutches and seed monitoring allowed shutoff of the seed flow to eliminate over-application of previously planted rows. GPS 6500 drew data from 14 satellites around the globe.

Adopting that type of technology can be quite a learning curve for some farmers. That creates a need for teachers like precision ag specialist Rich Schlipf, who says some people end up disappointed with new technology tools because they haven’t learned how to use them.

The former seed salesman specializes in teaching growers how to make good planter-technology decisions and enhance their profitability. He emphasizes it is important not only to understand the machinery, but the agronomics that go with it.

Increased Use of Sensors

Thanks to microelectromechanical system (MEMS), technology, data transduction and storage can be processed at a microscopic level. That means small devices can do great things. Drones and satellites can fly over a field and capture crop data, irrigation systems can spatially monitor and deliver water and fertilizer, and GPS systems monitor inputs and planting precision.

As sensor technology continues to develop, new advancements in detecting air and water quality, soil pH, plant health, and product ripeness are on the table.

At Iowa State University, researchers are using a low-cost, graphene-based sensor attached to corn plants to measure the flow of water from the roots to other parts of the plant. The goal is to breed plants that are more efficient at using water.

The plant sensor tattoo, as it is called, is made from graphene oxide, a honeycomb of sheets of carbon one atom thick that is sensitive to water vapor.

Ag Retailers Adapt to Ag Tech

Helping farmers navigate the field of new technology has become its own enterprise, with ag retailers offering precision agriculture services.

Companies like Great Bend Co-op started selling fuel in 1959 and eventually grew into a full service ag retailer. In 2014 they launched Decision Ag Services, offering satellite imagery, variable-rate technology, and data collection services, with an emphasis on helping farmers better utilize the equipment they already own, like setting up and using combine yield maps or using soil probes to better monitor irrigation water use.

Farmers find having a local source they can trust to put their profitability first is an invaluable asset.

Ag Startups Focus on Technology

Like any new business, agricultural startups can struggle to find funding. But, even though ag in general has seen better financial days, new ventures are finding firms ready and willing to invest in ag. According to AgFunder, $4.2 billion was invested globally into the ag sector in 2017. Entities like Syngenta Ventures, for example, are especially interested in novel, niche technologies and next generation ag inputs.

Focus areas going forward include using technology to better connect growers and consumers, producing more with less environmental impact, and more emphasis on local production and food access, as well as food as a health tool.

Indigo Ag is one of the new type of ag start-up. It uses genome sequencing and computational analysis to develop a database of genomic information on plant microbes, then uses that database information to determine which microbes will best benefit a plant in its unique environment in developing seed treatment products.

Agrisource Data is another example. Its AgClarity platform pulls information from in-field sensors and third party data sources to help farmers organize the who, what, where, and when of meeting harvest contracts.

The Future of Ag Tech

So what is the future for ag technology? In a word: space.

NASA plans on making its first manned mission to Mars in the mid-2030s, a long-range, long-term mission that will require the ability to grow food. That means, among other challenges, dealing with an entirely different ecosystem and soil that appears to be devoid of organic matter.

NASA has earmarked $15 million for a 5-year research project involving Utah State University, University of California Davis, University of California Berkley, and Stanford University to develop the needed technologies.

Researchers at Iowa State University are investigating new ways for farmers to estimate yields as the seed goes in the ground. It all starts with water, and an increased understanding of water below the surface of the soil, using plant sensors, drones, and new trouble scouting platforms.

Jobs in Ag Tech

The increased use of technology in ag production fits hand in hand with a new generation of farmers, and a new generation of ag support services. Telematics and data-management join the ability to repair and communicate about precision ag equipment as desired job skills in today’s market. Colleges and universities are starting to offer programs in ag specialist, precision ag technician, and equipment service technician.

Millwrights, mechanics, electricians, and applicators are also needed, as are data scientists and precision agriculturalists that are at the top of companies’ lists as they develop internships and job pipeline programs.

Another growing job sector is that of animal welfare specialist, as food production continues to accommodate consumer interest and preference. And processing plants need specialists in robotics and automotion.

It’s all part of a global trend that brings increased efficiencies and creativity to integrated farm production, processing, and marketing.

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