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Tech on the Rise

DroneAs an increasing number of Kansas farmers use automated equipment, camera images, and various forms of data to manage their operations, K-State’s footprint in precision agriculture continues to grow.

Terry Griffin, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, released figures in May showing that since 2010, the proportion of Kansas farmers adopting eight of the more popular technologies has doubled – and closely matches the proportion of farmers who adopted those technologies the previous 20 years.

Griffin said precision agriculture’s automated technologies can require less human capital and skillset to perform the same operation. The benefits also include increased amounts of farm data from yield monitors, soil sampling, imagery, and in-field sensors.

For producers, precision agriculture means being able to farm more precisely. After the drones have been flown, images collected from satellites and data gathered from in-ground sensors, farmers care most about whether the technology reduced expenses and allowed them to farm more efficiently.

Identifying problems

Therein lies the sweet spot for researchers like Ignacio Ciampitti, associate professor of agronomy who studies the use of satellite images to forecast crop yields.

“Companies bombard farmers with information, but don’t necessarily give them an actionable item,” Ciampitti said. “We try to show them how to put together information, so they can really consider using technology. We use satellites to identify a problem before the  problem becomes apparent.”

Researchers use satellite images to identify areas of stress in a field, often determined by what is known as the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). Paired with information on the ground – and sometimes historical pictures of the same field – the satellite images can pinpoint areas of the field that may not yield well due to various factors, including soil health, disease, or pest problems.

Satellites have made it possible for farmers to look at images and have a pretty good idea of how that field will yield later.

“Satellites are not replacing agronomists,” Ciampitti said. “A satellite picture is good for decoration, but you need interpretation. We educate farmers so they know what they can do because of what they see in the picture.”

View from above

K-State faculty use unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to mostly scout crop fields. Drones also can be used to monitor livestock and water quality, among other uses.

Ajay Sharda, assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering, leads a team scouting corn near Topeka to determine which areas of the field are getting too much, the right amount, or not enough water.

Armed with infrared and near-infrared cameras, the drones help researchers build crop water stress index (CWSI)maps, combined with information from ground sensors to measure soil moisture and additional equipment to measure air temperature, humidity, solar radiation, and sky temperature.

“We are taking data before irrigation and again after applying irrigation to determine plant stress and response to a management decision,” Sharda said. “We can say, ‘this is what it looked like, and we used that information to apply water and see if there is the expected response.’

“K-State has excellent tools for irrigation scheduling, but if we get more information on a spatial (field) scale, we can do a much better job in providing irrigation scheduling, such as how we should move our pivots, and understanding how much we can extend irrigation timing and not hurt our yields.”

Irrigation engineer Danny Rogers ’76, ’77, who has worked for K-State for more than 40 years, called technology use “an exciting time from the management aspect.”

“I’ve been focused on irrigation management my entire career, and this is a whole new level that will let us pinpoint what is going on so you’ll know where to go in the field to address problems,” he said. “As we continue improving the technology, we may even be able to do some of the diagnostic work without even entering the field, based on the layers of information we have on that history and current conditions.”

Monitoring nitrogen

DroneK-State agronomist Romulo Lollato said he has provided information to farmers about active crop sensors that can indicate crop health status and be used to provide nitrogen rate recommendations.

It has helped many to better manage nitrogen in crop fields, often times saving time and money while adding another layer of protection for the environment.

“Year after year, producers go out and put on 60 to 70 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer during the growing season because their parents did that and their grandparents did that,” Lollato said. “Well, 60 to 70 pounds … that’s a guess.

“We run into different situations – the most classic is over-applying nitrogen. Many years, we have that nitrogen in the profile, and we don’t need that 70 pounds of nitrogen. And some years, like these last two years, we may be under-applying nitrogen.”

Active crop sensors, which Lollato says are accurate “85-90 percent of the time in central Kansas and Oklahoma,” bring vital data to farmers, so they can apply nitrogen where it’s needed and in the needed amount.

“Before precision ag, producers needed to take a soil sample before planting. Now he or she can plant that crop as long there’s enough nitrogen in the fall, and monitor that crop using active sensors,” Lollato said.

More information is available at www.ksu.edu/precisionag.