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Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

Remote Technologies – Will drones change the face of agriculture?

Officially, we call them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) but that’s too confusing with all the SUVs, ATVs and UFOs out there–so we just call them drones!

They are already moving into every part of our lives from real estate to tourism, sales to sports, even police work and spying! You name it and a drone is probably lurking.

So why not agriculture? In an earlier blog, we talked about the mountains of information today’s farmer needs to make decisions and stay in business; well drones are ideally suited and poised to fill that need.

Fifty years ago the farmer did things instinctively, relying on experience and accumulated knowledge— walking into the field, feeling the soil, talking to the plants, casting an eye to the sky and just ‘knowing’ what was best.

In the 90s, the era of integrated crop management dawned, and a whole new industry of crop consulting was born with legions of highly trained field scouts and ‘experts’ stepping in to relieve the farmer of the burden of making decisions.

Well, now that is no longer enough. Scouts have to tromp through fields on hot steamy days and  document an increasingly complex amount of information (bugs, diseases, weeds, fertility, water stress  and all the other things that can affect  the crop) and then get all this back to the farmer.

It takes time, and scouts are human; they can make mistakes, tempting farmers to err on the side of caution and apply more inputs than may be needed. Not to mention that it is increasingly difficult in today’s society to find dedicated, highly trained people who are willing to do this arduous and exacting work for little more than minimum wage!

Enter the drones. They were made for this kind of work. As Professor Brian Luck from the UW’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering points out: “Drones can be loaded with game-changing technology – infrared cameras, vegetative indices sensors and other technology, collecting all manner of relevant data.”

It is estimated that up to 80% of the commercial market for drones will be in agriculture by 2025 creating a whole new industry with 100,000 new jobs and countless new tax revenues.

There is little doubt that this will happen. At $3-4,000/each, drones are cost efficient for farmers – way less than the hundreds of thousands for other equipment and, on top of everything, they are a lot of fun to fly!

So let the drone era begin. They will play a major role in the evolution of agriculture until remote sensing becomes even more remote as the satellites enter the stage at the farm level.

Before we hand everything over to the remote collection capabilities of the drones, however, there is need for caution. Is the technology developed that will allow us to process the huge amounts of information that the drones are capable of collecting?

We know that drones can take beautiful photos, lots of them — thousands each day— but extracting information from thousands of photos is time consuming and impractical without complex and expensive image processing systems.

Fortunately Wisconsin’s potato growers are as prudent as they are progressive in embracing new technologies. In 2015, they embarked on a three year research project with a group of researchers from four UW departments to explore what drones can do realistically to improve potato production.

Project leader, Dr Paul Bethke from the Dept. of Horticulture, is optimistic but cautious. Bethke states, “We know that in addition to cameras, other detectors can be used on drones to identify varieties, detect chemical composition of leaves and identify virus-infected plants but doing this correctly requires extensive ground-truthing.” The ground-truthing process helps verify research based information and ensures these types of technologies actually work in field-scale settings.

Drones will undoubtedly march on and assume a prominent role in leading the agriculture of the future, and Wisconsin’s growers will be ready to use their capabilities when proven — all because of being proactive and investing in research now to prove and ground-truth the benefits of these technological advances.

Until then, let us learn from past eras, encourage documented research and on-farm demonstrations and use what they can provide while keeping an eye on future advances.

One final note of caution, the FAA is finalizing rules for drone use in agricultural but as of now, they are not cleared to be used in that setting except for recreational or hobby use, and outside the boundaries of restricted use airspace.   If using drones, make sure they are clear of other low-flying aircrafts to ensure safety.

Apps for Ag – Farmers are using them every minute!

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Apps, we all use them.  Short for “application software,” they didn’t even exist until recently!

However, now some of these quick hit apps are the first thing we look at in the morning and last thing at night (and multiple times during the day).

Just as apps have become essential in our day to day lives, they are now helping farmers make decisions that allow them to grow our food more efficiently at the same low cost to consumers.

They have become so commonplace that there are now services such as that provide rankings of the top apps to assist farmers in choosing between them.

This is not surprising as the trend for greater and greater reliance on huge data-bases of information and new technologies become an  essential  part of modern agriculture.

Farmers now use their hand-held devises for many things, including checking weather, turning on or off irrigation equipment, maintaining pest counts from field scouting, identifying bugs, checking field records, reviewing soil types, ensuring site-specific planting or production, keeping track of pest control operations, or just recording  interesting facts that may be of use for long-term field management.

These tools often link directly back to computers in farm offices and allow farmers to maintain a complete record of everything that happens on the farm throughout the year and make critical long-term comparisons at the farm level. This not only helps improve production but is also essential to meet the many processor, retailer and public agency reporting criteria that are required nowadays to keep our food supply safe.

To maintain its integrity and provide unbiased information to farmers, app development is increasingly happening in the public sector. The University of Wisconsin has now launched an inter-disciplinary program designed to develop timely, locally driven, needs-based mobile apps.

Working with UW-Extension agricultural specialists and outreach program managers at the CALS Nutrient and Pest Management Program (Department of Horticulture), app development is occurring to meet many Wisconsin based needs.

These tools are easy to use and based on Wisconsin’s research-based crop recommendations. They are available now for a free download (for details see:  The series currently includes:

  • Wisconsin’s Corn Nitrogen Rate Calculator – designed to assist producers in selecting nitrogen fertilizer rates to maintain profitability in the face of fluctuating nitrogen and corn prices.
  • Nitrogen Price Calculator – which helps convert the price of each commercial fertilizer product from price per ton to price per pound of the key active ingredient, nitrogen — allowing for “apples to apples” comparisons helping growers make economic decisions and follow research-based recommendations.
  • IPM Toolkit – helps growers make the day-to-day pest management decisions by providing up to date articles, videos and research based publications from a single source. Growers can quickly review a large selection of relevant information and pictures to diagnose specific problems in their fields and look for research-based best management practices to address them.
  • Crop Calculators – lets corn growers calculate corn grain yields, corn maturity dates in relation to predicted frost, and corn silage price adjustments in relation to moisture content which helps them determine when it is time for harvest.
  • Manure and Legume Fertility Credit Calculator – helping farmers save money and protect the environment by taking credit for the fertilizer value of manure and legume crops and using less in season fertilizer.

Many more apps are being developed and used by farmers to allow them to balance productivity, profitability and environmental impacts on the farm.

This trend for using mobile technology to improve decision making in agriculture will continue increasing as the worlds need for food expands and farming becomes more competitive.

The key is to ensure that the apps are up to date, provide science and researched-based information, and contain reliable, non-biased data and recommendations.

Having this information in the palm of your hand, in your pickup and in the tractor cab has become as essential to modern farming as the accumulated experience of our grandfathers and fathers that drove agriculture in past times.

It’s all about the Data – How the Information Explosion Is Impacting Farming

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How much information can you possibly need to grow a crop these days? The answer might surprise you; it’s just about everything you can imagine that might be relevant and could potentially impact making the right decision.

Where you plant (GPS- defined to the nearest inch!); what the soil is made up of and what did you do with it over the past decade; what is the hourly weather now and in previous years; when did you plant; when did the crop emerge; how is it progressing; what pests might threaten, when might they arrive; what about fertility, harvest, yield, quality, storage, daily fluctuations in value – the list is seemingly endless! It’s called ‘big data’ these days, and it is changing the way we farm.

There was a time when farmers compiled much of this information in that wonderful machine called the human brain without thinking of it as data or consciously analyzing it. They walked the fields, felt the soil, caressed the plants, eyed the sky for what the weather might bring and decided what needed to be done.  In today’s world, however, that’s not enough! Today’s farmer needs to feed 150 people (compared to 72 just 35 years ago) and that number is expected to double over the next half century as the world’s population continues to grow. We have achieved this impressive leap in farm productivity thanks to new technology and better access to more information – expect that to play a bigger and bigger role as we go forward.   (more…)

The Future of Farming: Game Changers for the Next Generation

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Harvest is upon us already in the Central Sands and huge harvesters are filling endless lines of trucks with potatoes, green beans and sweet corn—destined to feed the world. These bountiful harvests are already reflecting the results of technological advances in agriculture that are occurring at alarming speed.

Our present day growers are now out-producing their fathers and grandfathers on the family farm by two- and even four- fold by taking advantage of new technology and exceeding the wildest expectations of growers just a decade ago.

In our day to day lives, computers, smart phones and their apps, new methods of communicating, satellites and even drones are in use in every part of society and are advancing so fast that they now define generations. These technologies are also advancing at the same speed in agriculture and changing the way that we produce food.

It is a widely accepted fact that farmers will need to double their production in the foreseeable future in order to keep pace with feeding the world’s population. How is that even possible?   (more…)

Land Ethic & Central WI Vegetable Growers

Blog 4_2Blog 4Land stewardship—that heart felt love of our open, green areas, interspersed with crops that are so essential in maintaining our rural landscapes. We all want to be land stewards but what does that term mean to farmers in Central Wisconsin who own many of these lands?

Wisconsin’s land ethic writings go back to Aldo Leopold, the esteemed author of the Sand County Almanac in which he described Wisconsin’s biodiversity, beauty and ability to integrate landscapes and agriculture.

Although the book was written in 1949, the themes of the book resonate today, especially with farmers who manage both large and small swaths of land and carefully weave together the natural and agricultural areas into biodiverse landscapes.

There is certainly a personal value to land ethic, but the benefits expand beyond private ownership to society at large.   (more…)

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