South Dakota is poised to benefit from precision agriculture
BROOKINGS — By the end of this year, $4 billion will be spent globally on precision agriculture with satellites, sensors, machines, data, and drones. It’s a collective industry opportunity and offers challenges which South Dakota is ready to embrace.
As director of operations for the Applied Technology Division of Raven Industries, Sarah Waltner was the keynote speaker at the recent South Dakota Corn Growers annual meeting in Sioux Falls. Waltner grew up on a family hog farm and says she spent a lot of time in the hog barns, in the family fields and neighbor’s fields. She graduated with an Electrical Engineering degree from South Dakota State University.
“Precision ag is the basis for what we do,” Waltner said in her remarks. She explained, “Precision ag is based on observing, measuring and responding to inter- and intra- field variability. It combines agronomic practices with farm machinery technology and with actionable data.”
Farmers have to be profitable, Waltner said. It used to be that nitrogen was applied at the same rate across the field. If one field or a corner of a field had highly productive soil, applying more pounds of nitrogen was worth the increased input expense. If the soil is rocky or sandy, there would be a lower yield because the base soil will not yield much, no matter how much nitrogen is applied. Precision ag gives farmers a way to analyze the needs and the variable rate equipment allows a prescribed application of applied nutrients where needed and at most beneficial rate for the crop.
Waltner referred to a study done by the industry which shows there is a 10 to 15 percent saving in inputs for GPS- guided steering because there is less overlap or application in unnecessary areas. There is a 10 percent savings when using variable rate application. This is because nutrients are only applied where needed. In another study, 85 percent of corn growers polled believed they were more profitable after adopting more technology.
Farmers are bombarded with complicated questions, Waltner said. Do I spend money on GPS or not? What about section control? What do I do with the data? What kind of data do I use? Do I get my imagery from the sky or from in-field sensors? Really good things are happening in the industry, but it comes down to a question about how the technology can work together to help the farmer.
Specifically, no one person or company can solve the problem of data overload. Technology is very complicated.
“We have gone from no data, or not much data, to so much data that it freezes the farmers,” Waltner said. “Precision ag is different from when it started and where it will be in 5 to 10 years. The key thing is figuring out the intersection between what money farmers will pay for their technology, how much do they want to spend on data, and how much do they pay for agronomy services, and how certain they are of a return from that investment.”
Farmers have made investments, but 65 percent say they are not using the technology to its full potential. Dealing with this is a real opportunity and also a real challenge.
Ag is the largest sector of South Dakota’s economy. Raven sees training those in the future workforce as vital to the success of precision ag. The company recently donated $5 million to help pay for the construction of a Precision Agriculture Facility at SDSU’s main campus in Brookings.
Waltner says the development of the SDSU Precision Ag program will yield new research, new job opportunities and likely new companies. Graduates of the program will go back to their communities and become an important part of the state’s workforce.
“Training is huge, retention is huge,” Waltner said. “With more and more complicated technology, we need a more developed workforce who understand the challenges of precision ag. Workforce development is important to the progression of the state.”
Waltner said Raven was founded by four scientists who worked at General Mills in the Twin Cities. They moved to Sioux Falls in 1956, and the company began as a designer and manufacturer of high-altitude research balloons. Sioux Falls was chosen as the company needed an airport willing to work with balloon launches. The area was welcoming to this new company and the industry.
From that product line, Raven grew into a diversified technology company with three divisions: Raven Applied Technology, Raven Engineered Films and Raven Aerostar.
Since 1978, Raven Applied Technology has helped create, define and redefine precision agriculture. The product lines are directed toward precision ag. Waltner said, “We are about the application and system approach, making sure that we can help the farmer take action on his data with our technology.”
Over half of those who work at Raven grew up on or are connected to a family farm in some way. The workforce is not from Silicon Valley. Many of the engineers are using the equipment they design in the evenings or on the weekends on their family farms. This provides a close connection between the products and the farming community. Raven designs products that are simple to use and because many of the engineers use the product themselves, it is designed with the user experience in mind.
“The biggest hurdle in the future will not be the technology but bringing usable and simple data to advance the practices,” Waltner said. “If I am a farmer with only 40 growing seasons in my lifetime, I don’t want to take a lot of risks. Growers shy away from what is good for them when they have to measure the risks. When 20 different companies are telling them 20 different things, there is almost too much technology available. Ag retailers need to be trained to help farmers make the best decisions which would improve their yield and reduce input costs. It’s important to marry the technology with simplicity to improve yields and/or lower input costs.”
The advances in technology are driven by increasing needs for the agricultural products. As populations grow, few countries are able to expand the land they farm. Improved farming techniques are needed to meet the demands, Waltner said. From state and economic benefits to the development of a highly trained workforce, South Dakota is well-positioned to benefit from precision agriculture technology and adoption.