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New Precision Ag Class Offered by NJC

Agriculture has evolved a great deal over the years, from horse drawn plows, to large tractors, to the use of drones today. Andy Bartlett, a social and crop science instructor at Northeastern Junior College, and one of his students, Adam Davis, spoke about precision agriculture and changes in agriculture technology at a Rotary Club meeting Wednesday, March 1.

NJC is currently offering its first class in precision agriculture, with 12 students enrolled. Most are production Ag or animal business students who will spend two years at NJC and then go back to the family farm or to work for an Ag production business.

Bartlett is himself is a fourth generation farmer in Merino. He said, “Our main goal with this class, and then possibly a certificate option at some point in time, is not to train researchers or scientists to develop models or the technology; more or less to develop the students to be able to fix that technology, to be able to install it, use it on their own farms.”

“Kind of cool to see just how far technology and agriculture has come,” Davis, whose family farms in Peetz, said in taking Bartlett’s class. He said, “Now we’re using drones, so that was quite the change.”

Bartlett noted besides changes in Ag technology, farmers have gone from very small fields to very large fields, as there are fewer farmers (only two percent of the U.S. population is involved directly in production Ag).

Precision agriculture originated from the need to have large areas of fields, but treat them on a small basis.

The reason large fields need to be treated as smaller individual fields is because of variability. There are two kinds of variability; the first is spatial variability, which over space, so that could mean a change in soil texture from one area to the next. There is also temporal variability, which is tracking variables over time, meaning tracking things like fertility, plant vigor or soil and moisture, which can change from today to tomorrow to the next week.

The tractors themselves are also evolving. Bartlett showed a photo of an autonomous tractor prototype from Case IH. The robotic tractor has no cab, because it drives itself based on directions from the farmer; it will do the planting or tillage of the fields, then it domes back to the main location it started from.

Other precision Ag hardware includes variable-rate planting. GPS monitors have allowed farmers to variable-rate their seed rates, so they can switch to different seed rates on different parts of their field.

Along with that, there is variable-rate fertilizer, so that farmers can apply different zones of fertilizer to their crops, and variable-rate chemical applications. Bartlett showed a video of a Trimble WeedSekker, which detects where the weed is and sprays application to get that weed. Though, it can’t really detect between crops and weeds yet.

Additionally, variable-rate irrigation, allows farmers who have a center pivot to speed it up or slow it down to apply more or less water, and satellite imagery gives farmers an estimate on plant health.

NJC is working with working with Agribotix, a startup company out of Boulder, to purchase the drones through a grant they received. So far, they’ve purchased a DJI Phantom 3, which has a specialized camera on it. They are also looking to get an eBee SQ, which is a fixed wing aircraft, which can fly over large distances and cover many acres in one flight, as well as a Phantom similar to the one they already have, but with a normal camera, that can be used for crop scouting.

Bartlett said, “It’s kind of new in the industry, in the Ag industry; we don’t totally understand them still, but we do know of some ways we can use them. They can tell us plant vegetation amounts. In the future hopefully it will tell us how much fertilizer to apply or to hold off on, also how much water we can or shouldn’t be using as well.”

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