Engineering solutions for the 21st century.
Meeting the food and fiber needs of a growing world population requires changes in traditional production techniques and attention to efficiency and sustainability. Precision agriculture is a leader in this transformation, and Joe Luck is a leader in precision agriculture.
Luck is an associate professor of biological systems engineering and Extension precision agriculture specialist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Precision agriculture is a combination of hardware and software tools that provides information to make farming more sustainable and efficient, Luck said. The hardware components include technology, such as sensors, that collect field data, while software components include analytical tools and data generated by the systems. Together, they allow agricultural producers to apply less water and fewer chemicals, protecting water and other natural resources and saving producers significant input costs.
“Precision agriculture is going to be the way of the future. In the future, farms are going to be larger. We can help manage those fields, with sensors automating parts of the crop management system,” Luck said. Even now, producers use sensors to collect data on ag fields, resulting in maps indicating the variable needs for water and fertilizer in each area.
Project SENSE, a three-year research project conducted from 2014-2017 through the Nebraska On-Farm Research Network, was a collaboration between 20 Nebraska agricultural producers, Nebraska Extension, the Nebraska Corn Board, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and five Natural Resources Districts. The acronym SENSE stands for Sensors for Efficient Nitrogen Use and Stewardship of the Environment. The research project used sensors to determine how much nitrogen fertilizer a crop needed – even based on differences within fields. Research results from 2016, the second year of the project, indicated that crop canopy sensors saved 34 pounds of nitrogen per acre and saved $7 per acre over grower management.
DATA COLLECTION, ANALYSIS, SECURITY
Today’s farms are being passed down to future generations with electronic records of yield history and application history, Luck said, which are valuable to farms’ new owners.
That data, and the technology used to collect, analyze and securely store it, represents changes in thinking and in the computing tools farmers now use.
“Big data, in my opinion, refers to data that we can’t manage on a desktop computer,” Luck said. “There has to be some type of cloud computing element to it.”
Many forms of agricultural data are just too large for a desktop computer and farmers and specialists must rely on cloud computing and processing, which refers to large, offsite computer servers. Some of the tools farmers are currently using in the fields automatically send data into a cloud processing system for storage and analysis, Luck said. The cloud processor returns data analyses and maps to the farmer.
“A lot of networks and platforms are pulling data sets from all across the country and even from other parts of the world, and performing some sort of
data analysis,” he explained. The data analyses assist with irrigation management decisions and with nitrogen application decisions, which can affect producers’ pocketbooks.
But the data may also be available to others.
“People are concerned about the data once it leaves their computers. Once it hits the web, it’s like everything else – it’s been backed up on servers in different places,” Luck said. “Another element is what people will do with others’ data once they have it. Can they leverage it? This business of data agreements has become a huge issue in agriculture.”
To address these concerns, the university became a founding member of the national Agricultural Data Coalition, which Luck calls a “real benefit to the industry.” The goal of the coalition is a national online repository where farmers can securely store and control the information collected by their equipment and operations. Before any data is shared with third-party interests, the information is scrubbed and formatted for uniform transmission. It gives the farmer complete control of the data, which doesn’t leave, or get networked with anyone or anything until the farmer gives permission.
“I think people need a cloud storage solution for their data just because you need that kind of double backup element,” Luck advised. “Always store raw data and keep an additional backup of that on your hard drive or in a secondary location.”
Luck and other Extension specialists conduct workshops for producers and other ag-related professionals, teaching them to work with agricultural data so they get the best possible understanding from the collected data and the analysis of that data.
“If you don’t have that basic understanding of data and science, the information could lead you in the wrong direction,” he said. “We’ve had some good comments from the workshops, so hopefully we’re being helpful to people who are trying to understand how to use the technology and the data.”
EXTENSION: EDUCATION, BENEFITS
Nebraska Extension is a part of the university and provides research-based knowledge through teaching, experiential learning opportunities and publications to Nebraskans. Extension specialists, like Luck, are located on the university’s East Campus and at three research and extension centers across the state.
Luck’s Extension work helps producers across Nebraska who want to learn new techniques that make farming more efficient and save them money.
“The Extension element is probably one of the most fun parts of the job,” Luck said. “I always consider when we’re out working with producers in their fields an Extension opportunity, and it’s a great way to get out and see the state and meet different people,” Luck said.
Luck focuses on site-specific management strategies, precision agriculture technology use and farm management software training in winter workshops in locations throughout Nebraska. During these workshops, Luck and his team of researchers set up computers and take producers through the steps of quantifying yield versus terrain, writing prescription maps for on-farm research studies, and how to determine field profitability using precision agriculture techniques.
FEEDING THE WORLD
One of the main issues with providing enough food for a growing world population is the transport and logistics of food to people who can’t grow it where they are, as well as the significant issue of climate change and climate variability, Luck said.
“I think if we can get everyone to produce with higher efficiency – and I think some of our producers here in Nebraska are – we would be a lot further along than we are right now,” he said.