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Agriculture of the future could look a lot different

posted: December 18. 2017 10:31a CST
by / Jim Massey, Editor | jim.massey@ecpc.com

WISCONSIN DELLS — What will agriculture technology look like 40 years from now?

If what has transpired in the last 40 years is an indication, things could look a lot different on the farm in 2057 than what they look like in 2017, according to Raj Khosla, a precision agriculture professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. Khosla offered his projections Dec. 12 during a UW Discovery Farms Conference in Wisconsin Dells.

For the most part, farmers and their advisers aren’t taking advantage of the technology that is available to them with lightning-fast computing devices, Khosla said. Today’s cellphones contain computers that are 4 billion times faster than the computer that put the first man on the moon in 1969, he said, which means people are carrying a lot of computing power — much of it that goes unused — in their pockets.

GPS receivers developed by Rockwell Collins in 1976 often took up a good portion of a room, Khosla said, while today’s cellphones that are newer than 2000 include a GPS chip inside that is much more powerful than that 1976 model.

Precision agriculture datasets can help farmers conduct soil sampling, remote-sensing, soil-moisture sensing, crop-health sensing, prescriptive input applications, yield mapping and more.

When those tools are developed, tested and used properly, they can greatly enhance farmers’ ability to prepare prescription maps that allow them to apply the right inputs at the right time, at the right place, in the right amount and in the right manner with greater accuracy.

In the future, Khosla predicted that farmers will be able to use biodegradable wireless sensors that can be randomly distributed in a field to collect data. Each of the sensors will cost pennies, he said.

“They will be sleeping most of the time, but they will sense the parameter of your interest and dump data until it reaches a server,” he said. “Those sensors will have the ability to capture yield on a per-plant basis.

“We’re doing all this because we want to understand the relationship between soil and water and use technology to manage our crops better.”

For decades farmers have been using their eyes, ears and noses for observations on their farms, but now sensor technology can collect that same data and be more accurate.

The future possibilities seem complicated and might even sound impossible, but the technologies of today didn’t seem possible 40 years ago either, he said.

“Landing a man on the moon did not happen overnight or on the first shot,” he said. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do you do precision agriculture? One acre, one field and one farm at a time.”

Farmers often use one rate of water, one cultivar and the same amount of fertilizer uniformly across fields, but yet they don’t get uniform yields from every part of those fields.

“I have not found a field on this planet that produces the same amount  of output throughout the entire field,” he said. “From one part of the field to another, it changes.

“That’s what spatial variability is all about. Now we have yield-monitor data to quantify that variability. It’s not only farming the land, it’s also about farming the data. That’s the paradigm shift.”

Some small-scale farmers might think there isn’t much variability on their farms, but Khosla said anyone flying over Colorado or Nebraska can see significant variability by farm and by field.

The point of capturing site-specific data is to help farmers better understand the relationship between soil and water and use the technology to more efficiently manage their crops, Khosla said.

He predicted there would be a “massive wave of innovation” coming in agriculture, but he said he thinks the time is right.

“We need that investment (in agriculture),” he said. “Over the last 50 years we have not seen this much interest in investment in agriculture as we’re seeing today.”

In a study on the farm of Rod Weimer, a Colorado farmer who was the 2015 “Precision Agriculture Farmer of the Year,” Khosla said less than 2 percent of the pixels measured on the farm came in at the “average” of 182 bushels of corn per acre. Only about 36 percent of the data collection points came in within 10 bushels above or below that average, he said.

“We found that 40 percent of the fields were under-fertilized and 24 percent were over-fertilized,” he said. “Access to data allows farmers to make better decisions.”

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