Precision agriculture at Agtegra is changing how farmers utilize technology and farm
I recently moved to Aberdeen, and I thought it would be a clever idea to pitch the editorial staff here on a tech column for this lovely magazine. I mean, I’ve been a tech writer all my life, and wouldn’t it be fun to write about tech in the Midwest? They use technology in farming, don’t they? What’s it called? AgriTech? Precision something?
WRONG! Wrong, wrong, wrong. It was not fun! This is an exceptionally deep and detailed tech sector!
“Precision ag is farming.” That was Lance Larsen, Agtegra’s Precision Service Coordinator, who set me straight at the massive co-op’s Innovation Center in Bath. He went even further, “Literally, if you’re not using precision ag, you’re not a farmer.”
Drive four miles out of Aberdeen in any direction, and you are guaranteed to land squarely in the expanse of South Dakota’s beautiful farm country. Who knew that those beautiful vistas of a crystal blue sky smiling over endless rows of healthy crops are powered by the steely precision of math, science, data, colorful LCD screens, satellites, sensors, and a whole lot more? Everyone except me, apparently. Yet, what a fascinating area of tech!
Let me tell you what I learned.
For starters, the city of Aberdeen is heavily dependent on the agriculture sector. My exploration focused on the crop production community, as opposed to livestock farming which has its own rich technology story. According to the most recent USDA Census County Summary data, there are 1,034 farms (livestock and crop) in Brown County.
The majority of the farms were at the extremes: $100,000 or more in sales (388 farms) or less than $2,500 in sales (376 farms).1 In total, these thousand or so family farms contributed roughly $19 million alone to the Brown County economy in 2018. There have been better years, of course, such as 2016 when that number was closer to $61 million.2
But it’s not only the farmers themselves in Brown County that fuel business in downtown Aberdeen, it’s also the extended agriculture industry with its labyrinth of ecosystem partners from tool, seed, equipment and service suppliers to the million dollar ethanol plants. In short, if ag has a good year, it has a direct impact on the city’s economic health year to year. It’s been that way since the turn of the 20th century when agriculture became a thriving industry for the county.3
And the force multiplier today behind agriculture’s success? Larsen nailed it: technology. In the ag sector, tech gets loosely lumped into “AgTech” which includes nearly everything from genetic engineering to robotics to blockchain technology. In my research, I found a Silicon Valley investor who is tracking 1,600 startups in AgTech.4 It’s a hot market.
Here in Northeast South Dakota, most growers are talking about the submarket of AgTech called, “Precision Agriculture” or “precision ag” for short. There’s even a popular website with the same name I consulted to do a lot of my research. An editor there, Paul Schrimpf, kindly helped me assemble the table of information with the topmost popular key terms you need to know in this space.
It appears PrecisionAg.com grappled with some of these definitional issues itself and had to consult with the International Society of Precision Agriculture (ISPA) for an official definition: “Precision Agriculture is a management strategy that gathers, processes, and analyzes temporal, spatial, and individual data and combines it with other information to support management decisions according to estimated variability for improved resource use efficiency, productivity, quality, profitability, and sustainability of agricultural production.”
What does that mean? It mostly means that growers who depend on precision ag technology are using data inputs to increase productivity, efficiency, and increase profit. That’s my interpretation. Trust me, it gets VERY complicated. But the bottom line is the technology informs the grower how to make more money. That’s it. Go deeper than that, and you’re in some serious tech weeds.
Agronomists specify and prescribe the best treatments for a grower’s fields by utilizing soil productivity zones. Inputs like fertilizer and seed can be analyzed and optimized with rates that increase and decrease throughout the field. These sophisticated in-cab data collection and monitoring displays connected to planters and combines allow the grower to literally see what’s happening in real-time and make decisions on the fly.
We’re fortunate here in Aberdeen to have the Agtegra Cooperative, which is one of the largest agricultural cooperatives in the U.S. It is, in fact, the largest local farmer-owned ag cooperative in the U.S. Brent Wiesenburger, Agtegra’s Director of Ag Technology Services, said he has eight million acres in his field database. That’s a lot of ground to study. Agtegra serves 6,500 member-owners (743 in Brown County).
A major benefit of the co-op is in its thorough field testing of new products and treatments. “A lot of this technology the growers can get themselves. Over the years, we’ve done a very good job of sorting through the B.S. and protecting them from a really horrible investment,” he said.
For instance, Agtegra has been looking to UAVs to enhance yield in specific spots after the field’s already planted and growing. But Wiesenburger recognizes there are technology limitations to the prevailing standards. “Right now, the industry standard for data transfer is a humongous file that’s hard to push through a cell[ular network].”
He’s right about that. I also had the opportunity to sit down with a father and son team who run a medium size farm in Bath. Scott and Matthew Sperry farm 2,500 acres off Highway 12. Scott’s great grandfather started the farm in the ’30s, so Matthew is the fifth generation to inherit the love of farming.
Matthew, now a double major at South Dakota State University (SDSU) in agronomy and precision ag, talked about drone challenges. He said you’re still subject to bad data if you have a bad day. “If it’s windy, the image is blurry. It’s junk data,” he said.
Scott, Matthew’s Dad, sees the future in 5G. “I think that 5G is going to be the real thing.” They both commented on how with 5G you’d have the speed required to send the large files Wiesenburger was talking about to do more instantaneous uploads to a server where large datasets could be processed and displayed on an iPad or other LCD screen in the field.
Even today, sensors are pulling a lot of data. Matthew points out saying, “There are sensors on every single row of the planter. There’s a monitor that runs that and iPads that sync with that monitor.” With 5G we’re expecting data-capture devices to proliferate in every field and agriculture will be no exception, as sensors are a critical component of what the tech community refers to as the Internet of Things (IoT).
The first major step-change in technology mentioned by both Agtegra’s Larsen and at the Sperry farm is auto-steer, which was once an option, but now comes standard on all combines and tractors. “It just helps you so much. Now I just watch the machine. You can drive straight all day long. It was probably one of the earliest technologies available after the mapping yield monitor,” said Scott Sperry.
With the detailed prescription maps programmed to control the massive planters and spreaders, Wiesenburger describes the accuracy and repeatability of the GPS signal, “They’re turning a corner in a rowed field, hitting the engage button on their auto-steer and going back to monitoring equipment or checking the markets, and they don’t probably even look up until they get to the other end of the field.”
It’s getting sophisticated out there. Family farms in the Aberdeen Area are lucky to have excellent education options here locally. In 2016, SDSU was the first university in the country to offer a major and a minor in precision agriculture. SDSU’s Dr. Van Kelley, the department head there, said they’re 95% done with the $46.1 million Raven Precision Agriculture Center. Once that is operational, they will be considering graduate degrees in precision agriculture.
According to Larsen at Agtegra’s Innovation Center, Lake Area Tech and Mitchell Tech both have excellent programs, too. “Mitchell and Lake Area Tech propel the kids quicker. They let their kids out in March to do internship work to get the hands-on. SDSU kids don’t get out until May. By that time, precision agriculture hardware has already been installed, and we’re already in the field. The two-year grads are way ahead,” he explained.
Dr. Gregg Carlson, who’s now retired but still teaches a few classes in precision ag at SDSU, says a lot has changed over the 45 years or so he’s been at this professionally. “From my perspective, precision agriculture is just the way we farm today. It’s an evolution of agriculture.”
Yet he cautions, “It’s incredibly great technology that is improving our accuracy in farming, which is both good and bad.” Carlson explains that as the efficiency, effectiveness, and price of technology decreases, it creates surpluses. And that hurts the ag economy in aggregate.
“It’s almost a Catch-22. As an individual farmer, you have to be as good as you can be, but when you have more farmers getting better and better and better, you increase the supply of the grain, which reduces the price. But as an individual farmer, you don’t have a choice. You’re competing for your ability to produce products,” he said. Carlson is looking to innovation and new markets to solve that problem. He mentions hemp as a possibility.
One thing is for sure. If the ag business is going to evolve into new areas, chances are Northeast South Dakota will be leading the way in innovation. I heard from nearly every source in this column that the Aberdeen, Brown County region has a reputation as a leader in adopting new technologies.
Wiesenburger, who ranks in the top ten most influential precision ag experts in the country5, says he travels around the country in his position. “I have many peers in this business. I’m part of many social groups. We get together, talk shop and challenges. I’ve been doing this since ’96, and our adoption in Brown County is second to none when I go other places.” A familiar refrain he hears is, “You guys have it so good out there.”
When I asked him why that is, in true South Dakota fashion, he pointed not only to his own team, but to his competitors. “I think [the growers in this area] have had access to really good companies that were aggressive in getting the technology out there. Agtegra, RDO Equipment, Titan — all have good support networks.
Early on, there were some pioneers that really saw the need for service in the ag technology space. I think the growers had access to a lot of talent over the years that could help them through some of the decisions that had to be made. In a lot of other areas, they leave the grower high and dry,” he said candidly.
He said there’s still a lot of work to do in precision agriculture. His focus right now is providing an indisputable, clearly understood return on investment for the grower. “We haven’t been able to execute on that,” he admitted.
Dr. Carlson understands that motivation. “Profitability of agriculture is incredibly important to all South Dakotans. It’s the very basis of our economic model for the state. It’s the profitability that pays for the electricians, the teachers– everybody indirectly is impacted, even though they don’t know it.”
The same is true for the City of Aberdeen. If the ag sector is doing well, the city is doing well. And, rest assured, technology will continue to drive growth and innovation in agriculture well into the future. // –Susan Scrupski
- The National Agricultural Statistics Service 2017 Census of Agriculture.
- Bureau of Economic Analysis. Gross domestic product (GDP) by county and metropolitan area
- Brown County History, History Committee of Brown County Museum and Historical Society, 1980
- Better Food Ventures
- The Top 10 People in Precision Ag Technology, PrecisionAg.com, 2016
Precision Ag Common Terminology
A GPS guidance system that steers agricultural equipment with centimeter accuracy. This level of accuracy requires real time kinematic (RTK) correction of GPS signals. Auto-steer is an add-on component for equipment. It includes both the GPS system to receive and process the signals, software and hardware to allow the input of control maps and the mechanical equipment to actually steer the tractor. Some new tractors are available “auto-steer ready.”
Data Layer (in GIS)
A layer of information on a GIS map. A map can have many layers to present different types of information. For example, the first layer of a map may be a satellite image of an area. The next layer may have only lines that represent roads or highways. The next layer may contain topographic information and so forth.
A sensor that measures the amount of flow through an enclosure (tube, pipe or housing) per unit of time.
Geographic Information System (GIS)
A computer-based system used to input, store, retrieve, and analyze geographic data sets. The GIS is usually composed of map-like spatial representations called layers which contain information on a number of attributes such as elevation, land ownership and use, crop yield and soil nutrient levels.
Global Positioning System (GPS)
A system using satellite signals (radio-waves) to locate and track the position of a receiver/antenna on the Earth. GPS is a technology that originated in the U.S. It is currently maintained by the U.S. government and available to users worldwide free of charge. There are 30 satellites in the GPS constellation.
Managing crop production inputs (seed, fertilizer, lime, pesticides, etc.) on a site-specific basis to increase profits, reduce waste and maintain environmental quality.
The dispensing of a material or chemical into the field on a prescribed or predetermined basis. A prescription map is generated by an expert (grower and/or agronomist) based on information about the field in use before an application. The prescription determines how much of something will be applied.
A map that indicates differences in soil properties (texture, fertility, organic matter, pH, etc.) within a field.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)
An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone and also referred by several other names, is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. The flight of UAVs may be controlled either autonomously by onboard computers or by the remote control of a pilot on the ground or in another vehicle.
In agriculture, UAVs are typically used to survey crops. The available two types of UAVs – fixed-wing and rotary-wing – are both equipped with cameras and are guided by GPS. They can travel along a fixed flight path or be controlled remotely.
Variable-Rate Technology (VRT)
System of sensors, controllers and agricultural machinery used to perform variable-rate applications of crop production inputs.
A map that indicates differences in crop yield within a field. Data is usually collected by a yield monitor on a combine over one to three second intervals.
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