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Big data is coming to agriculture

Unmanned aerial vehicles, autonomous tractors and other technologies will continue to emerge as producers meet world food needs in the near and distant future, according to experts.

Those experts 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 in 2050.

Bob Avant, director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research corporate relations, discussed farming in the next 10 years at the recent Texas Plant Protection Association Conference in Bryan. Also pictured is Dr. Stephen Searcy, head of the department of biological and agricultural engineering at Texas A&M University in College Station. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Blair Fannin)

Presentations at the 2016 Texas Plant Protection Association addressed the theme of this year’s conference: Advanced Technologies for Texas Agriculture. From smartphone apps to unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as UAVs, speakers said there are big changes in how food and fiber is going to be produced.

Bob Avant, program director for Texas A&M AgriLife Research corporate relations, provided an overview of farming in the next 10 years. He said the “10,000-pound 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 the table.”

He said farmers in the future will continue to rely on data to make decisions. He said 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 be more expensive to own, though farmers will utilize the ability to push a button and have an autonomous tractor with a grain buggy pull right up 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. He predicts farmers will go from big iron to small iron, in other words using less horsepower tractors as farmers continue to switch to strip till methods rather than conventional disking that requires large equipment.

Technology and new information will help producers increase per-acre yields while reducing the use of natural resources like water, Avant 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 bushels to the acre, and three to four bales of cotton to the acre is expected. And 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,” he 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 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 as well as Corpus Christi and Weslaco.

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

“I don’t think a farmer will want to become a GIS 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.

The conference technology theme drew more than 300 attendees consisting of agricultural producers, industry representatives, as well as Extension and research scientists.

Source: AgriLife Today
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