Technology has long been a blessing for agriculture — bigger and better tractors, planters, plows, and harvesters have helped get the most from better-producing seed. And in recent decades, precision agriculture technology has seen regular advances in ways to maximize production efficiency.
Here are a few newer hi-tech gadgets and other smart phone age tools that may help reduce your input costs and improve your margins. They could help take your production to the next level.
DRONE AND SENSOR TECHNOLOGY
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have revolutionized ways of getting closer and clearer aerial views of all sizes of farms. But they can do more than just show what’s happening in the middle of a field.
Thomas Haun, senior vice president of agriculture for PrecisionHawk, a major drone product and service company, says drones equipped with sensors have the ability to identify plant diseases, assess water quality, secure volume measurements, detect heat signatures, and produce surface composition surveys.
“We spend a lot of time working at the farm gate, as well as with seed and chemical companies, to illustrate how drone and sensor technology can be used,” he says. “Sensors can generate plant counts and forecast yields, access and monitor plant health, assess canopy variation in biomass, and detect plant stress in mid- to late-growth stages. Plant height, canopy cover mapping, nitrogen measurement, drought stress, and other characteristics of a field can be documented with sensor data gathered from drone flights.”
A farmer’s focus should be on sensors attached to the drone, Haun says. “These are really your eyes. If you have an option between two drones, and one costs more than the other, but the sensor is five times better, you may need to go with the more expensive one. Also, look at the lenses on sensors, the size of the sensor, the bands of light it collects, and the resolution it can provide. Those are the keys.”
Visual and multi-spectral sensors outfitted to drones are the most commonly used at the farm level, Haun says. A drone with a high-end multi-spectral sensor, like the MicaSense RedEdge from PrecisionHawk, captures blue, green, red, red-edge, and near-infrared. Prices can range from $10,000 to $13,000, depending on the drone. PrecisionHawk provides a multi-rotor and VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) option.
If you’re just getting started with drone technology, he says, you can buy an off-the-shelf model for $1,500 and use PrecisionHawk’s free mapping software to collect and view visual data in 2-D and 3-D ortho-mosaics. For more info, visit https://www.precisionhawk.com/agriculture.
FARM MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE
There are dozens and dozens of farm management software brands that can do everything from helping to keep the books to breaking down production from every acre on every field. If you don’t use farm software, you’re likely leaving money on the table.
Stratus Ag Research, Puslinch, Ontario, Canada, notes that some 75 percent of growers are capturing precision ag data, but more than half are doing little, if anything, with the information. That’s according to its survey of more than 800 U.S. farmers and 700 Canadian farmers in 2016 and updated in 2017.
The research also found that only 40 percent of all growers are satisfied with their current methods for analyzing and interpreting their agronomic data, says Krista MacLean, Stratus project manager. While 80 percent of U.S. farmers have equipment that captures data, only 40 percent are taking it further by analyzing it with field data management software.
The website https://bit.ly/2NDACBf lists more than 150 farm software companies, along with ratings and specs. Costs range from free to several dollars per acre. In using farm software, be prepared to spend time at the computer. All data must be entered to insure that planting, growing, and harvest records coincide with weather patterns and other factors that impact production.
Above all, find a system that fits your operation. Then, take the time to learn and understand how these management tools can improve your operation.
The Stratus research found that farmers using this type of software generally run large farms, are young, and are investing for long-term profitability. So, it may require letting your kids (often more tech savvy) help with data management.
An advanced farm management tool is Climate FieldView from The Climate Corporation. It’s used to manage nutrients and other crop protection inputs, and connects with virtually any farm management software system offered by machinery manufacturers and software companies.
Basically, growers can use a tablet, smart phone, or computer to view nitrogen levels based on applications, crop stage, and weather. The tool can help determine the right time and rate of nitrogen to apply.
Sam Eathington, chief scientist for The Climate Corporation, notes in a company blog that Climate FieldView users often do split-planting trials to compare seed and soil quality. In 2017, he says, farmers who ran split-planting field trials on the system, with two different seeds planted side-by-side in the same planter pass, saw an average yield differential of 8 bushels per acre.
Eathington says this year’s data indicate that 45 percent of the software’s users are running the trials, which “marks a tipping point for the value of digital ag in regard to experimentation and crop performance insights.”
He says they can see which seed performed the best on the most productive acres, as well as the least productive acres. For more, visit https://www.climate.com/.
ROBOTIC WEED KILLERS
Driverless tractors are here. What about robots that control weeds? They’re not yet available commercially, but the See & Spray machine from Blue River Technology is proving itself in numerous cotton country tests. It could be a future addition to weed management that can reduce herbicide inputs by up to 90 percent, say company officials.
Blue River Technology is a Silicon Valley company that’s a branch of John Deere.
The See & Spray system has the ability to identify weeds and treat them with a shot of herbicide without spraying cotton plants. Jorge Heraud, Blue River co-founder and CEO, says the “sprayer” uses integrated computer vision and machine learning technology that enables growers to reduce herbicide use by spraying only where weeds are present.
“Blue River is advancing precision agriculture by moving farm management decisions from the field level to the plant level,” Heraud says. “We are using computer vision, robotics, and machine learning to help smart machines detect, identify, and make management decisions about every single plant in the field.”
In a Blue River video presentation, Ben Chostner, See & Spray general manager, says testing has included trials in parts of west Texas and Arkansas. Width of the robotic sprayer is similar to typical hooded sprayers 30 feet to 60 feet wide.
The sprayers only target and treat weeds — there’s no uniform spray over the entire field. The company says See & Spray could eventually become a “cocktails” herbicide system to spray specific herbicides to specific weeds or grass.
It can apply herbicides in cotton planted on 40-inch rows, but can be adjusted to handle 30-inch rows as well. For more visit http://www.bluerivertechnology.com/.
ENERGY ESTIMATOR FOR NITROGEN
The Energy Estimator is one of several tools from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service that was developed to increase energy awareness in agriculture. One feature is the ability to gauge nitrogen usage, cost and potential savings to your farm.
Users can calculate the potential cost savings of nitrogen product use on your farm or ranch. NRCS agronomists have developed these cost estimates based on nitrogen fertilizer management methods for the predominant crops in any state. The tool doesn’t provide field-specific recommendations; rather, it evaluates nitrogen options based on user input.
The estimator evaluates fertilizer form, application rate, timing of the application, and fertilizer placement. Users enter their ZIP code, fertilizer materials available in their area, then select the crop, number of acres, type of application, and unit measurement for price.
The tool then provides info on potential savings. Further analysis is needed for final N applications. For more on this cost-saving tool, go to https://nfat.sc.egov.usda.gov/.