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Computer technology leads to innovation in agriculture

Computer technology leads to innovation in agriculture

It’s not a stretch to say that computer technology has changed almost every business in the world over the last couple of decades.
One industry that is seeing a wave of new innovations involving technology is agriculture. By combining global positioning systems (GPS) and soil sample data, local farmers are going high tech to improve their crops.

“It is about reducing the inputs (of fertilizer and other chemicals) while increasing yields and being better stewards of the environment,” says Blenheim area farmer Pat Rogers.

He is one of several Marlboro County farmers who are working to make the most of computerized farming.

Rogers, after attending an agricultural technology conference last winter, invested in equipment and software to do his own soil sampling and fertilizer application.

“In the past, an entire field would get a blanket coverage of fertilizer, based on an average of a couple of soil samples throughout the field,” said Rogers.

Since the types of soil in each field can vary a great deal, that usually resulted in some areas of the field getting more fertilizer than it needed, while the others were not receiving enough.

More recently, fertilizer companies which offer application services, began using GPS data, allowing them to vary the volume of fertilizer distributed in different parts of each field.

However, Rogers says that the equipment that he and other farmers in the area are using will allow them to take the precision aspect of farming even further.

“The idea is to treat a big field like a bunch of small ones. I can make as many soil samples as I wish, record the GPS coordinates of each sample and send it off for analysis,” he explains.

The data he gets back from the laboratory feeds directly into software on his laptop computer. More importantly, it loads into the computer on his tractor.

The tractor communicates with a controller on the fertilizer spreader as it pulls through the field, instructing the machine how much lime, phosphorus or potassium to distribute.

Another primary nutrient, nitrogen, is applied after the crop has sprouted. It has always been applied in a set rate across the field. Here is where the next innovation in “ag-tech” will come in.

Rogers says the next step is to integrate yield data from each year into the formula to determine the right amount of fertilizer.

“Our combine and cotton picker have on-board computers that record how much the machine is gathering at any one time. That includes the GPS coordinates. So we can see exactly where in each field the crop performed the best,” says Rogers.

The operator’s cabin of his John Deere combine looks like a computer room, with digital displays and controls. To the right of the driver’s seat is a touch-screen about the size of an Apple I-pad.

On this screen, the operator can monitor exactly how much corn or soybeans the machine is gathering.

This yield data will later be loaded into Rogers’ laptop. Combining that information with the soil sample data and the amount of fertilizer used to produce that crop, he will be able to further tune in on the perfect concentration of nutrients each area of a field needs.

He will also begin applying nitrogen in varying amounts, based on the yield results.

“Unlike the soil samples, the yield data is something that will take several years to collect to get a meaningful picture,” he says.

Over time, the variations caused by the volume of rainfall and other weather conditions will average out. He also predicts that future versions of the software will begin to accumulate data for those variables.

The primary goal is to produce more crops but Rogers expects to reduce spending on fertilizer and lime. By having precise control, very little unnecessary fertilizer will be used and that will be a benefit to the environment.

“This technology is advancing quickly. There is no telling where this may take us in the future,” says Rogers.