Big data in ag continues to expand

Big data in ag continues to expand

Soil health and cover crops will be two important areas to watch over next decade.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), autonomous tractors and other technologies will continue to emerge as producers meet world food needs in the near and distant future, according to experts They believe technology will continue to emerge and make possible giant leaps throughout the next decade as agriculture industries and producers work to meet world food needs projected in 2050.

Presentations at the 2016 Texas Plant Protection Assn. addressed the theme of this year’s conference: Advanced Technologies for Texas Agriculture. From smartphone apps to UAVs, speakers said there will be big changes in how food and fiber is produced.

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Bob Avant, program director for Texas A&M AgriLife Research corporate relations, provided an overview of farming in the next 10 years and said the “10,000 lb. gorilla” agriculture faces is feeding 9 billion people by 2050.

“It’s going to affect agriculture greatly in terms of food supply,” he said. “We are going to have to increase protein production plus protect how much we waste in terms of spoilage and portions on the table.”

He said farmers will continue to rely on data to make decisions in the future but noted that larger farms will be more efficient “because the equipment is getting more expensive. We will likely see more sharing or partnering on equipment use and systems.”

That’s because the price tags on autonomous tractors and related equipment will continue to make them more expensive to own, although farmers will utilize the ability to push a button and have an autonomous tractor with a grain buggy pull up right beside a harvester when needed.

Precision applications such as planters, sprayers and strip-till cropping systems will play an even bigger role in the next 10 years. Avant predicts that farmers will go from big iron to small iron — in other words, using smaller-horsepower tractors as farmers continue to switch to strip-till methods rather than conventional disking, which requires large equipment.

Technology and new information will help producers increase per-acre yields while reducing the use of natural resources like water, he said.

“Ten years ago, we were dealing with sorghum lodging, two-bale cotton to the acre and yield variance on corn,” Avant said. “Nowadays, corn is much more drought tolerant; we’re seeing 100 bu. to the acre, and three to four bales of cotton to the acre is expected. It’s not just the equipment; crop genetics are going to be another exciting thing 10 years from now.”

He said soil health and cover crops will be two important areas to watch over the next 10 years.

“There will be a total systems approach to how we farm,” Avant said.

Texas A&M AgriLife currently has more than 40 scientists involved in a UAV project that is evaluating soils, plant stress, insects and weeds as well as developing decision-making support aids for farmers and ranchers. Avant said the program is the largest in the U.S.

“We can take data collected from a UAV and measure plant height, other aspects of plant health and other characteristics far more than just measuring predictive production yields,” he said.

These experiments are taking place at the Texas A&M Farm near College Station, Texas, as well as in Corpus Christi and Weslaco, Texas.

Avant said the average farmer might not go spend thousands of dollars on UAV equipment, but farmers may see value in the information the technology would make available to them.

“I don’t think a farmer will want to become a (Geographic Information Systems) expert,” he said. “Will there be a farmer that wants to know what’s going on in the field and how to remedy it? Yes, there will be some that will go out and spend the money on a simple UAV system, but the remedies will be beyond the scope of farmers because of the sophistication of information. Farmers will likely rely more on crop consultants to translate that information.”

The big data collected from UAVs and other sophisticated machinery will lead to dashboard systems — hubs of information that will integrate all facets of crop production concurrently going on in the field, Avant said.

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