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Precision Agriculture in Minnesota

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Color image of a farm worker adjusting GPS equipment inside the cab of a planter, June 25, 2009. Used courtesy of the United Soybean Board.

A farm worker adjusts GPS equipment inside the cab of a planter, June 25, 2009. Used courtesy of the United Soybean Board.

Precision agriculture is a farming method that uses the global navigation satellite system (GNSS), sensors on the ground, and drones in the air to study individual farm fields. With these tools, farmers can fine-tune their approaches to planting, harvesting, and maintaining crops to save themselves time and money. Minnesota farmers have used the technology since the early 1990s to improve crop yields while protecting the health of their soil.

Precision agriculture is also known as site-specific crop management, satellite agriculture, and as-needed farming. Although there are multiple definitions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines the method’s goal as making the most of “inputs for agricultural production according to the capability of the land.” In practice, this means considering the strengths and weaknesses of land before seeding it.

Farmers have worked towards this goal in Minnesota and around the world for thousands of years. In the twenty-first century, however, they use satellites, ground sensors, drones, and real-time data collection to achieve it.

The global navigation satellite system (GNSS) and related equipment allow farmers to look more closely at their fields. Satellites provide real-time data to tools like tractors, combines, mowers, and water sprayers. The tools, in turn, communicate via Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Global Information Systems (GIS). The GPS units work with GNSS and ground stations across the globe to pinpoint exact locations; GIS methods help farmers map their fields. In this way, crop producers exploit technology in order to operate sustainably while increasing their yields.

Sensors in the ground and attached to field equipment can measure soil conditions such as water or potassium content. The sensor data is combined with GNSS and GIS to create another type of field map—one that illustrates soil contents. Equipment can read the maps and, in response, apply the appropriate level of seeds, water, nutrients, or chemicals to each zone of the field. Farmers can also use the maps to adjust crop management and plan for future growing seasons.

Drones are another key part of precision agriculture. After they fly over a field and survey its zones, farmers use the data they collect to create overhead images of their farmland that highlight areas with disease or pest issues. Patterns and colors not normally seen with the human eye may become visible.

Individual Minnesota farmers began experimenting with precision agriculture methods in the 1980s. The first tools they used were soil sensors capable of measuring organic matter. In 1985, in a test of related technology, University of Minnesota researchers sprayed different amounts of lime on fields and measured their effect. By the 1990s, commercial farms had begun to take up the practice in large numbers.

Since then, precision methods have become standard practice in Minnesota and throughout the upper Midwest. A 2006 survey of the Crop Ecology, Management, and Quality Division of the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA Division C-3) ranked precision technology one of the most game-changing farm tools developed between 1955 and 2005.

Consulting firms began to form across Minnesota in the 2000s to assist farmers in collecting data. They also analyzed these findings to make recommendations about how they can increase crop yields. Jerry Johnson founded one such firm, Superior Edge, in Mankato in 2003. Clients in Minnesota and the Dakotas increasingly sought out Johnson’s help with farm software and data collection.

Johnson formed a second company, Farmers Intelligence, in 2011 to sell drones that take aerial pictures of fields. By 2017, it had acquired more than thirty patents. A third Johnson venture—FourthWing Sensors—developed out of Farmers Intelligence to handle the drones’ design and manufacture.

The Precision Agriculture Center on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus was established in 1995 to meet increasing demand for information-technology training related to farming. It was the first project of its kind in the United States. Responding to a demand for greater understanding of site-specific techniques in Minnesota, the Precision Agriculture Center promotes collaborative research, education, and outreach programs. It also partners with companies, farmers, and academics to develop training modules. In the 2010s, it expanded its offerings to cover modules in yield map interpretation, intensive soil sampling, farm experiment design, and precision farming profit studies.

The Center uses an area called Loveall’s Field in southern Minnesota for an ongoing research project. To demonstrate the value of site-specific soil fertility treatments, participants observe how sampling intensity and method affect fertility. They also evaluate the cost-effectiveness of intensive sampling. Throughout the process, they use site-specific data, often gathered with GNSS, GPS, and GIS, to make management decisions.

In 2017, Minnesota firms like Farm Intelligence and Superior Edge continue to lead the industry. Rowbot Systems, based in Minneapolis, builds two-foot-wide robots that farmers can program to navigate cornfields and apply nitrogen to soil.

Winfield United, a subsidiary of Land O’Lakes headquartered in Arden Hills, sells crop-protection products and management tools that draw from the principles of precision agriculture. Its name reflects the 2015 merger of Winfield Solutions, with United Supplies. Its flagship product, the R7 Tool©, allows farmers to apply seeds, nutrients, and crop-protecting treatments to fields at adjustable, customized rates. Members of the Agricultural Retailers Association named the R7 the winner of an industry-wide technology contest in October 2012.

Winfield earned $4.8 billion in revenue during 2015. In 2016, it partnered with the Climate Corporation to integrate the R7 Tool© with Climate FieldView™, a proprietary platform that monitors soil chemistry.

The ability of precision agriculture tools to accurately predict future conditions is likely to improve over time. Prediction accuracy in particular is helpful to farmers, since it can determine how they decide to plant and manage their fields. Prediction analysis helps them prepare their resources from season to season and year to year. As climate change accelerates and weather patterns become more extreme, monitoring annual changes will be increasingly important.

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Crookston, R. Kent. “A Top 10 List of Developments and Issues Impacting Crop Management and Ecology During the Last 50 Years.” Crop Science 46, no. 5 (2006): 2253–2262.

Emerson, Dan. “Precision Agriculture? Jerry Johnson Has it Covered.” Minnesota Business, August 27, 2014.
http://www.minnesotabusiness.com/precision-agriculture-jerry-johnson-has-it-covered

Helmer, Jodi. “Is State-of-the-Art Farming Coming to a Field Near You?” The Guardian, January 20, 2015.
https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/jan/20/is-state-of-the-art-farming-coming-to-a-field-near-you?

Land O’Lakes Inc., Winfield.
https://www.landolakesinc.com/Company

Meersman, Tom. “ Precision Agriculture Becomes Mainstream in Minnesota.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 15, 2014.
http://www.startribune.com/precision-agriculture-gps-robots-drones-are-new-minn-farmhands/259320921/

Mulla, D. J. “Twenty-Five Years of Remote Sensing in Precision Agriculture: Key Advances and Remaining Knowledge Gaps." Biosystems Engineering 114: (2013): 358–371.

Pierce, Francis J., and Peter Nowak. "Aspects of Precision Agriculture." Advances in Agronomy 67 (1999): 1–85.

Stafford, John V. "Implementing Precision Agriculture in the 21st Century." Journal of Agricultural Engineering Research 76, no. 3 (2000): 267–275.

University of Minnesota. Precision Agriculture Center: About the Center.
http://www.precisionag.umn.edu/about-center

USDA. “Precision Agriculture: NRCS Support for Emerging Technologies.” Agronomy Technical Note no. 1 (June 2007): 1–9.
https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1043474.pdf

Related Images

Color image of a farm worker adjusting GPS equipment inside the cab of a planter, June 25, 2009. Used courtesy of the United Soybean Board.
Color image of a farm worker adjusting GPS equipment inside the cab of a planter, June 25, 2009. Used courtesy of the United Soybean Board.
Color image of a type of drone used in precision agriculture on display at Innov-Agri, an international agricultural trade fair. Photographed by Guilhem Vellut, September 6, 2016.
Color image of a type of drone used in precision agriculture on display at Innov-Agri, an international agricultural trade fair. Photographed by Guilhem Vellut, September 6, 2016.
Color image of emotely sensed image of a farm field illustrating vegetation density, water deficit, and crop stress, 2010.
Color image of emotely sensed image of a farm field illustrating vegetation density, water deficit, and crop stress, 2010.

Turning Point

In the 1990s, commercial firms in Minnesota begin to incorporate precision agriculture into their operations, applying its tools to large-scale projects.

Chronology

1950s

Emil Truog, chair of the Department of Soil Science at the University of Wisconsin, studies precision soil testing and fertilizer application.

1985

Researchers at the University of Minnesota experiment with the precision agriculture concept by measuring the effect of lime inputs on crops.

1990s

GPS units become more widely used in agriculture.

1990s

Commercial farms begin to adopt precision agriculture.

1992

University of Minnesota professors Bill Larson, Dick Rust, and H. H. Cheng help organize the first International Agriculture Conference, held in St. Paul.

1995

The Precision Agriculture Center opens in St. Paul. Pierre C. Robert is its first director.

2000s

Automated machinery in conjunction with GNSS and GPS is promoted and used.

2003

Jerry Johnson founds Superior Edge, a farming-data consulting firm, in Mankato.

2006

The University of Minnesota hosts the fourteenth—and final—International Agriculture Conference. 2010s Process analytics become more accurate and powerful. Automated machinery continues to improve.

2013

Over a third of all Midwestern farmers rely on precision agriculture techniques.

2014

Between 30 and 40 percent of soybean and corn farmers in upper Midwestern states (including Minnesota) rely on fertilizer systems with variable rates.