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Published January 22, 2013, 07:01 AM

Getting precise: Precision agriculture an evolving science

The science of agriculture is thousands of years old. However, the science of precision agriculture — the process of tailoring the planting and fertilizing process to a specific area through the use of global positioning systems and precision maps — has only been around for about 20 years, according to Dr. Raj Khosla, professor of precision agriculture at Colorado State University.

By: By Keith Norman, The Jamestown Sun, The Jamestown Sun

The science of agriculture is thousands of years old.

However, the science of precision agriculture — the process of tailoring the planting and fertilizing process to a specific area through the use of global positioning systems and precision maps — has only been around for about 20 years, according to Dr. Raj Khosla, professor of precision agriculture at Colorado State University.

Khosla was the keynote speaker at the Precision Agriculture Action Summit, which began Monday at the North Dakota Farmers Union Conference Center.

“While it is a developing science it is very dynamic,” Khosla said. “In other ways the change is slower than other technologies because we have a cautious clientele.”

Khosla said the process is different than other technology-driven industries.

“People who buy cellphones will upgrade their phones every couple of years,” he said. “Precision agriculture equipment is the livelihood of the farmers who buy it. They are cautious with that kind of investment.”

Khosla said the precision agriculture process is based on two complementary systems. Soil-based management utilizes soil tests to determine the best seeding rates and fertilizer applications for the different zones of a field. Plant-based management uses scanners to read the health of plants and apply supplemental fertilizer after crops start to grow.

Both management systems have their challenges, Khosla said. The soil-based management can require extensive soil testing, which can be time consuming and expensive. Plant-based management requires scanning the plants at the time the farmer is applying fertilizer.

“The sensors now only read the plants’ color and health,” he said. “We shouldn’t be critical. We’ve come a long ways on measuring this.”

Those sensors attempt to determine the health of the plant and forecast its yield based on its color and height, said Dr. David Franzen, professor of soil science at North Dakota State University.

Franzen’s research centered around planting one strip, usually 100 feet long, with a rich nitrogen fertilizer and the rest of the field with a lower amount. The nitrogen-rich strip served as a baseline. Sensors mounted on the fertilizer application equipment determined the potential yield of each area of the field compared to the nitrogen-rich strip and applied additional fertilizer appropriately.

The research will continue during the 2013 growing year.

Khosla said the interest in precision agriculture is prompted by growing demand.

“We have to produce double as we go forward to meet the growing world population,” he said. “But the changes in commodity prices have also given a push to precision ag. Farmers are seeing more value to their crops and want to see how they can increase the return.”

The Precision Agriculture Action Summit continues today with presentations running from 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Registration is available at the door for $100 per person.

Sun reporter Keith Norman can be reached at 701-952-8452 or by email at knorman@jamestownsun.com

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