Partnering with technology, farmers and ranchers are watching their productivity grow in leaps and bounds, a topic explored at the IDEAg Innovate Conference held at the American Farm Bureau Federation's 96th Annual Convention and IDEAg Trade Show. The conference featured some of the latest technology poised to transform American farms and ranches: precision irrigation, unmanned aerial vehicles and the Internet. 

Water is a driving factor in agricultural productivity and profitability, and companies like Valley Irrigation are using technology to help farmers maximize both, Andy Smith, Valley Irrigation's director of industry relations, told farmers and ranchers from across the country. 

Valley Irrigation's system, compatible with a number of other platforms farmers and ranchers use, integrates factors related to soil, crops, nutrients, pests, moisture, historical yield, regulatory limitations and many others to pinpoint almost exactly where water is needed. 

"With variable rate irrigation we can create pie-shaped management zones or thousands of unique management zones within one field," Smith explained. "We are to the point right now we can get right down to the individual sprinkler." 

In fact, the system is so precise, farmers can control up to 495 sprinklers individually. 

Despite all the information and feedback the Valley Irrigation system provides, the decisions rest squarely with farmers, and they always will, Smith emphasized. 

"The bottom line is we empower farmers to make the best choices possible," he said. "Intuition, art and luck are still very much alive and well on the farm." 

Lance Donny, founder and CEO of OnFarm, addressed how integrating technology and big data will equip farmers and ranchers to double production to feed a global population that is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050. 

"Agriculture needs to boost annual yields by 1.75 percent to meet the challenge, and big data will be a key component to help us get there," Donny said. His company, OnFarm, created a "plug-n-play" interface that takes data collected by various companies and provides farmers with recommendations based on those analytics to increase efficiency and productivity. 

This kind of technology is already being used through smartphone applications to make houses and appliances "smarter," and agriculture must harness this technology through simplified tools farmers and ranchers can use to continue meeting the needs of a growing population. 

"We are already seeing this kind of technology transform agriculture," Donny said. "But we must find ways to manage our data so the real value of it is not lost." 

Aaron Greenwald, president, chief operating officer and co-founder of the Unmanned Safety Institute and Kyle Miller, a farmer and Unmanned Safety Institute ambassador, finished the session with a discussion on unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones, and the safety risk of operating them along with their potential to aid farmers. The rules for this emerging, but sometimes controversial technology, are still being formed, leaving safety under the control of the user. 

"Buying a UAV off the Internet, reading the manual and flying it is just not safe, and it's not legal," Greenwald said. "They don't have lights or other safety features on them, meaning low-flying planes can't see them." 

Even with concerns over safety, Greenwald feels that agriculture will be one of the first industries to adopt this technology. The reasons why are clear. The ability to already monitor crop condition, identify crop disease and visitors elevation models show the potential behind this technology. 

"When we map a field, we're able to include individual plants," Miller explained. "We can then go back in a few weeks, find that plant and see how it's doing."