As both a young farmer and software engineer, Andrew Nelson of Farmington, Wash., is well suited to bring new technology such as drones and sensors to his family farm to reduce input costs and improve efficiency.
In fact, Nelson, a fifth-generation farmer who produces wheat, beans, peas and lentils on 8,500 acres in the Palouse region of eastern Washington, close to the Idaho border, is convinced this new technology is the key to precision agriculture and profitability.
In a virtual forum presented by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center Sept. 16 on using technology to improve plant health, Nelson stressed the key to success for farmers is to combine all of the technology from drones to sensors, to computer software to satellite imagery into one package to boost yields and lower production costs.
Nelson is a first adapter of the new technology and stresses that it does help him improve efficiency and make better management decisions. He says he combines the technology to get a better, holistic view of the entire farm.
“I am able to do a drone flight of my field and identify where there are grassy weed issues, and I’m able to send my drone sprayer and spray just those areas where there are issues,” Nelson said in the virtual forum.
In the past, he had to broadcast spray an entire 200-acre field, but with drones he is able to cut sprays down to 18 to 25-acre spots where there actually are grassy weeds. “That’s one of the things I think we are going to get better and better at is being able to take those scenarios and have the feedback loop coming to farmers much, much faster. I think that’s going to help us in improving yields and making us more sustainable, using less chemicals and managing our farm in a very precision ag way,” Nelson said.
Nelson said the biggest economic gain of the drone and sensor technology is cost savings from reduced chemical usage because it allows you to see where the weeds are and spray only where the weeds are. Still, Nelson says there will be a need for residual herbicides to control weeds across an entire field.
Nelson noted that his most expensive chemicals don’t have residuals and that’s where he’s achieving the biggest savings with the technology. He uses mapping data and historical drone images from multiple years to help guide his decisions in where to apply herbicides in a more precise way.
“Last year, I can say for certain the reason I had profit is because I was able to selectively apply some of my chemicals. The amount of money I saved on that is nearly exactly the same amount of my profit that year,” Nelson said.
Information to knowledge
Ron Heiniger, Extension cropping systems specialist at North Carolina State University, says a challenge of the new technology has been turning sensor-based information into knowledge that farmers can actually use. He says progress is being made in using drones or unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs and sensors to track disease development and making spray decisions.
“I do think in the next five years it’s going to be that integration and return of knowledge for the grower that will make the biggest progress,” Heiniger said.
Doug Farrington, regional digital officer for BASF Agricultural Products, North America based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., said the new technology has created a world of specialists, ranging from software engineers to data architects to data scientists. Farrington said add in machine learning and artificial intelligence plus precision ag specialists as well as pathologists specializing in a specific crop and diseases, and you often have information overload.
“We’ve created all these specialists, but who’s going to connect all the dots? Where did the idea of the generalist go? No doubt there’s going to be a need for these specialty areas, but there’s also going to be a need for somebody who can put it all together and understand the impact of some of the solutions,” Farrington said in the forum.
Ralph Dean, William Neal Reynolds professor of plant pathology and director of Center for Integrated Fungal Research, emphasized that the plant will tell you everything you need to know.
“If you can get inside the head of that plant, so to speak, you’re going to have a pretty good idea of what is going on for ag production. We’re going to have self-reporting plants. We’re going to have plants that are going to be able to tell you what ails them, what their problems are. Using that information, we can hopefully intervene to be able to solve that problem,” Dean said at the forum.
“Plants do talk. They do have a language. They have words. Those words are metabolites. We can detect those different chemicals in different ways. We use drones. We use aerial imaging to actually look at the spectral changes. We can detect other biochemical pathways through various molecular approaches,” he said.
Dean said there are already sensors that can be applied to plant surfaces to read physiological and chemical signals. He said there are electrical physiology signals coming from the plant that can be monitored.
“I think it’s not science fiction that within 20 years we will have self-reporting plants that will actually tell us what is going on in the field: Information about drought tolerance, stress, even potentially the type of pathogen that’s being infected,” he said.