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NASA sponsors precision ag research

Several years ago, Roger Leonard and Ralph Bagwell, both Louisiana Extension research entomologists, participated in some on-farm “ground truthing” in cooperation with a commercial research group sponsored by NASA.

Why NASA? Well, it turns out that NASA is interested in working with remote sensing in agriculture so images generated by its satellite technologies have a practical application.

Many areas of research, however, must be validated before NASA images can apply and transfer to producers. Enter Leonard and Bagwell.

Bagwell and Leonard began in 1999 using students to ground-truth information to detect arthropod pest populations and to determine associations to plant growth patterns picked up by remote images. At the time, the satellite images weren't even available.

“We simulated the imagery with fixed wing aircraft flown 12,000 feet above the ground,” said Leonard, who spoke at the Precision Agriculture Conference held in Monroe, La.

After gaining federal funding for their work, Leonard and colleagues have assembled a multidisciplinary team to evaluate, develop and extend the technology to producers in Louisiana. The project is set up for five years and funded for four years.

Remote sensing is the key tool initially being examined. Beyond that, GPS technology is used to make prescription applications to correct obvious problems in crop fields.

“The LSU AgCenter Research and Extension divisions, along with scientists from the Louisiana computer science department and NASA, are important to project. NASA has agreed to provide us the images we need over the next four years,” said Leonard.

The components

Researchers want to be sure the technology works for many producers in the state. Extension specialists will transfer information about the technology.

Producer Jay Hardwick's land in the northeast part of Louisiana will be the primary test site. He will allocate labor, equipment and land to work the project.

The first objective is to obtain images of various sorts — thermal, multi-spectral or hyper-spectral imagery — and to associate some type of variation in plant growth patterns within fields. If a field is not growing well, then pests might be associated with areas in the field, said Leonard.

If researchers can't associate insect problems with the images, then they can't differentiate where a farmer needs to apply a corrective treatment. But if they can pick up images of estimated plant growth associated with insects, then site-specific management technology will be available to farmers.

“Indications are that we can save anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent of the crop protection products being used for pest management. That's tremendous in the cotton business, where farmers are spending $50 to $200 per acre to manage pests,” said Leonard.

No random distribution

Researchers already know insects aren't randomly distributed across fields. They're found in certain spots. “We need to find and identify those spots,” said Leonard.

The project's second objective is to apply treatments properly.

“We're developing management zones. In some instances, rather than treat a whole zone, we'll apply variable rates within a zone. We can do this by ground and by air. Tremendous strides are being made in applying pesticides in this manner by air.”

In addition to examining arthropod pest populations, agronomists will look at variations in moisture content. Another condition to measure is soil moisture levels. If we compare those to remote sensed images during the season and yield maps at the end of the year, we can better time irrigation treatments,” said Leonard.

Agricultural economists will analyze the data for costs and benefits to producers. This will let researchers identify savings from using the technology.

The last component of the program will be transferring information gleaned over the next two to three years to producers.

“We want this to apply not only to the largest commercial producers, but to all.”

Not promoting industry

Leonard said the point is not to produce a new industry within the state. Instead, there is an attempt to utilize what's already available.

“This will integrate the technologies currently available into a system producers can use to make better decisions. A producer can acquire images from a private service or, we hope, from the aerial applicator industry. These images may also be available from satellites, although we don't think so due to some other problems occurring.”

Agriculture consultants will review the images and ground truth certain areas. The producer and consultant will then be able to come up with prescriptions for troubled fields. After developing the prescription, it'll be applied by the same aviator who might have provided the images. The process is then started again and can be repeated on a daily or weekly basis.

Farmer's perspective

“This has incredible benefit potential. Production agriculture is in trouble in the United States. We're not going to compete based on cheap land and labor anymore. We're going to have to look at new technologies and new management systems,” said Hardwick. “This project, in particular, I think will identify a new model. The expertise involved in this is top-notch and is exciting.”

The structure of the research project also spreads the risk, said Hardwick. “No single producer would be able to embark on this. This shares the risk of money, technology and expertise. It's a win-win for all. If we're to make this work, we've got band together.”

Hardwick said there aren't a lot of answers at the outset of the project, but the benefit potential is “incredible. Pesticides are a huge part of our inputs. A positive results would be to significantly reduce that cost. We can't control the costs of equipment and material. And we can do little about futures prices. But we can do a lot about how we apply the materials that are becoming ever more costly.”

What kind of costs per acre are Hardwick and other farmers looking at to incorporate this technology?

“I don't know. We're at the beginning stages. That's why the risk needs to be spread across many partners. Much of the hardware used in this project is already well-established. We're embarking on this come spring. You'll be hearing more as the project moves along,” said Hardwick.


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