Top Most Intriguing Technologies in Agriculture

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This may be a bit of stating the obvious here, but we’ll throw it out there anyways: as much as some of us may fight it, we journalists are unequivocal #List Nerds. Listicles, Top 10s, “Best-Ofs”. Websites like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post basically made the leap to mainstream media status all on the strength of their respective Listicle format. No matter what you call them, we writers love brainstorming them, arguing over what to include and what to leave out, and then seeing how they are received by the ultimate target audience for these lists: you, the reader.

So why do a “Top 5 Most Intriguing Technologies for Precision Agriculture” listicle? Well, beyond the fact that it was damn good fun putting it together, we hear time and time again that many of the technologies featured in the pages of our publications don’t fully deliver once deployed in the field. So this is our attempt to say, “Hey, here’s what we are hearing actually works!”

1. See & Spray Technology and Machine Learning

Many of the “cool” new technologies being made available to agriculture have a hard time finding practical applications that add value. On its face, machine learning — the ability of a computer to accumulate knowledge about an action or a thing and begin to “make decisions” on its own — would have broad applications in ag. And it could; but the devil is in the details. Tasks that seem relatively simple often end up having multiple layers that add complexity in a hurry.

Blue River started by identifying a singular issue of great concern — herbicide-resistant Palmer amaranth — and developed a machine that can “learn” to identify and spray Palmer on the go utilizing machine learning. In testing mode in the Southeastern U.S. this year, it is scheduled to move to production in 2018.

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2. Internet of Things

The term the Internet of Things (IoT) has a very Silicone-Valley vibe, but its potential benefit to agriculture should be clear. Essentially, it’s connecting all the disparate devices we use in the field to monitor and measure the work we do, and making the information they provide fully accessible.

We’re already using it. We monitor fuel tank levels, soil moisture, water meters, rainfall, weather stations, irrigation pumps, and cattle biometrics today, and access the information from smart phones. “These new technologies can already help improve operational planning and accelerate decision making on farms, large and small,” says Paul Welbig, Director of Business Development in Agriculture at Senet. As more solutions are built and deployed, there’s no doubt we’ll see even more advantages develop from the IoT in agriculture.

“IoT has the potential of connecting literally billions of devices and ‘things’ in agriculture that never had a voice before because they were typically too costly to do so,” he continues. “Now, with the advent of low power, wide-area networks, low-cost modules, and longer battery lives, we can affordably connect soil, water, plants, animals, machines, and any other objects that could provide us with valuable data insights.”

3. Irrigation Control

When it comes to employing technology that improves control and efficiency, irrigation is arguably the farthest along in the ag industry. Systems that serve up status reports on pivot performance, soil moisture sensing, weather, and other field data to mobile phones and computers are commonplace, and providing end-users with on-the-go tools to make and implement irrigation management decisions.

And the future is even brighter for irrigation control. Manufacturers such as Valley and Lindsay are working on building connectivity with other types of field sensors to help end-users make more comprehensive agronomic decisions, says Nebraska farmer and irrigation expert Roric Paulman. “The fact that these manufacturers are willing to open up and be connected is really big news for agriculture.” Paulman says that much more is in the works that will provide information to end-users that will improve decision making both from an irrigation standpoint, as well as overall agronomy.

4. Nitrogen Modeling

Fertilizer is still by far the biggest revenue generator for retail service providers — and has in recent years become arguably the most scrutinized input in agriculture. Along with a variety of stewardship initiatives have come commercial programs that monitor and improve nitrogen efficiency — programs that are really beginning to show their mettle.

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As the market continues to move away from the single fertilizer application approach toward multiple in-season applications on an as-needed basis, nitrogen management solutions have evolved to help retailers make the best possible decisions about rates and timing to ensure the most efficient application is being made. Systems such as 360 Yield Center and Adapt-N are gaining traction and providing a clear path to better nutrient efficiency.

“The pace of adoption of nitrogen management solutions are being driven by two things: validation and simplification,” says Steve Sibulkin, CEP of Agronomic Technology Corp., which has developed Adapt-N. “Validation goes beyond, ‘does it work’ — for the grower it means improving every step of the decision making process, and for an ag retailer it must drive differential value to the core business.”

Dynamic, flexible solutions provide “actionability,” he says, allowing end-users to understand the data and make adjustments to programs and recommendations on the fly.

5. Electrical Conductivity Sensing

Measuring the Electrical Conductivity (EC) capacity of soils is becoming an increasingly important component of any precision irrigation program. By combining the data output of currently available EC sensing products like the backpack-mounted Geonics EM38-MK2 (used more prominently in permanent crop orchards) or Veris’ pull-behind Soil EC sensor with other layers like soil moisture and pH, service providers hired to optimize a growers’ water usage can show a higher level of service by using the data to make more informed decisions on watering, from both the timing and quantity aspects.

Zabala Vineyards (Soledad, CA) is one of many wine grape growing outfits in California that deploys EC sensors throughout its vineyards to right-size irrigation scheduling. Dealing with a range of soil types from sandy to basically growing grapes in a Fred Flintstone-esque gravel pit, it’s these data layers that allow Vineyard Manager Jason Melvin to tailor his irrigation schedule to each individual wine blocks’ soil type. “With those EM-38 EC values we like to use that to set our plant available water metrics in real-time, and we use that data to direct our soil sampling program. And all of that is used to design our irrigation system and schedules for the year,” Melvin explained during our 2017 California Ag Tech Tour.

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