North Dakota’s 4th Annual Precision Agriculture Summit drew a slightly smaller crowd to Jamestown than last year, but the audience still showed strong and more intense interest in a fast-changing topic.

Kenneth Sudduth, an agricultural engineer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Columbia, Mo., and president of the International Society of Precision Agriculture, spoke to about 250 people registered for the event.

Precision agriculture is going in the right direction for farmers, Sudduth said. He said agribusinesses are starting to produce more “nicely packaged services” for farmers wanting to take advantage of “big data.” The big data concept involves things such as weather data and other public data sources that are regional or national in scope. They are combined with models and decision-making support tools that include machinery and crop growth models, and topped off with individual farmer data.

That farmer data can be on yield input or crop production, including what variety was planted in a particular field in a year.

“Putting all of these together, with the main goal of improving farmer decisions gets to be a big process,” Sudduth said. “Once you get to the details and try to figure out how to do it, the complexities become even more apparent. It gets to be the kind of thing where you need somebody experienced with the ‘big data process.’”

Sudduth, who works in the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, said companies are providing farmers with options, what he calls scenario development. He said some of the projects “failed in part because of a lack of personal contact and involvement with the farmers.”

Toward the ‘Z’

Kale Glynn, of Ag Leader Technology Inc., of Ames, Iowa, who sells OptRx Crop Sensors, said U.S. farmers need to manage the basics before jumping into the finer points of precision agriculture tools. OptRx sells crop sensors that work by directing light onto a crop canopy and reading reflected light back to determine crop health. The idea is for sensors to see where supplemental nitrogen or other crop inputs can be helpful.

“The biggest thing is how we incorporate this into our farm,” he said. “You have to have essentials covered before you jump from ‘A’ to ‘Z.’ If you want to dream big and save a ton of money on nitrogen, the most important rule is to follow the steps to get to that point.”

To use sensors well, the applications of supplemental nitrogen should come after the V5 stage of plant development, where there is a canopy of leaves available for a proper response, Glynn says. Before that point, the sensors will see soil and that will throw off the calculations.

“You’re still going to be changing the rate on the fly, but it’s not going to do what you think it’s going to be doing,” he said.

Alex Burge of TOPCON Precision Agriculture, predicted data will be brought into applications fed out to a mobile device.

“In the next two or three years, you should be able to manage the majority of your work on your tablet, or your phone, and it should actually go into your computer with the same application, so there’s no lost data, no lost functionality.”

Increased Experience

John Nowatzki, a North Dakota State University Extension Service agricultural machine systems specialist, and the principal coordinator for the event, said the experience level is apparent in the questions from the audience.

In the crowd were Aaron Disrud and Ross Garrison, farmers from Rolla, N.D. Besides farming, Disrud works with Precision Partners, a Fargo-based variable-rate agricultural application company. Garrison is also a private crop consultant in his North Border Consulting business, and said the precision agriculture events are bound to become more important.

Disrud and Garrison said they were looking forward to the second day of the event, which is especially focused on Unmanned Aerial Systems, or drones, for helping farmers collect information needed to make cropping and other agriculture-related decisions.

“I think, first-off, the Federal Aviation Administration has got to get some regulations in place before the UAV stuff becomes mainstream,” Disrud said.

A demonstration of one of the drones had been scheduled for the event, but was dropped because of complications involving requirements for audience protections, event officials confirmed.