Cutting-edge, data-driven agricultural technologies and precision management strategies designed for the farm of the future will be developed, evaluated, and demonstrated, thanks to a four-year, $4.3 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant headed by Cornell researchers in collaboration with the Cornell Institute for Digital Agriculture (CIDA).
A multidisciplinary team of Cornell and University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff researchers, extension specialists, educators and industry partners will implement the Cornell Agricultural Systems Testbed and Demonstration Site (CAST) for the grant project, which includes one crop research and two dairy farms at Cornell.
Ultimately, applying these new tools and practices – which integrate data about soil, crops, water, animals and more, so conditions can be adjusted in real time – could greatly help farms operate sustainably, mitigate climate change, be environmentally safe and increase productivity. Part of the project will include education and training so farmers and other stakeholders can learn about and apply the new methods.
“The overarching goal of the research is to foster the development and implementation of data-driven technologies, precision technologies and technologies that allow farmers to automate or semi-automate management tasks,” said project director, Dr. Julio Giordano, associate professor and director of the Dairy Cattle Biology and Management Laboratory in the Department of Animal Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).
“We will work on integrating existing and in-the-pipeline technologies to help fully refine and test them in a commercial-like setting,” said Giordano, who is also associate director of CIDA, which plays a key role in the grant by linking together faculty from diverse fields.
CAST will focus on crops and dairy systems, two mainstays of the U.S. agricultural economy, through three real-world, commercial-scale research farms: the Cornell University Ruminant Center in Harford, the Musgrave Research Farm in Aurora and the Cornell Teaching Dairy Barn in Ithaca.
Project co-directors and collaborators include more than 15 Cornell researchers, extension faculty and teachers from CALS, Cornell Engineering, the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and the College of Veterinary Medicine.
CAST will seek to integrate promising cutting-edge management practices that are not widely applied with existing technologies that are often used in isolation.
“One of the novel aspects of our project is that we’re creating an ecosystem of fully integrated technologies, where technologies exchange data for improving farming practices,” Giordano said.
For example, CAST will explore precision management of crop inputs, where instead of one-size-fits-all management of whole farms or fields, areas will be broken down into small management zones that incorporate data of soil qualities, moisture, sunlight and other conditions. In this way, farmers can precisely apply the right amounts of seeds, fertilizer and water to smaller plots based on the needs of that zone. Researchers will also measure how precision management of cover crops affects soil erosion and nutrient runoff, and they will test and track how effectively soil amendments such as biochar and rock dust promote carbon sequestration.
As for dairy research, CAST will focus on smart automation and data-driven precision animal management, specifically feeding, health, and reproductive monitoring and management. Wearable sensors such as ear and leg tags directly measure biometrics on the cow. These are integrated with readings from a cow’s immediate environment and non-wearable sensors that measure cow performance, and other features such as body weight and condition.
“It’s an ecosystem of sensors that all together help us learn about cow biology to optimize management through data,” Giordano said.
As part of Cornell’s land-grant mission, Cornell Cooperative Extension and PRO-Dairy will be vital for providing farm workers and stakeholders of the larger food system with access to demonstrations and the results of testing. This will be carried out through on-farm visits as well as the development of a virtual farm, where anyone in the world may access dairy, soil and crop demos and information.
The project will also create a network, called CAST-Net, for farmers, technology manufacturers, consultants and other stakeholders to communicate with each other.
“We want farmers and companies to come together and be part of the process of technology ideation, development and demonstration,” Giordano said. In this way, users may learn about and try out new technologies and offer feedback for improvement.
On the education front, Cornell faculty have worked to create a minor in digital agriculture to train the next generation of scientists, farmers, inventors and tech users. A new class within the minor, Introduction to Digital Agriculture, emphasizes attracting underrepresented minority students. The class will also be taught through the University of Arkansas system.