Kent Shannon works as a precision agriculture and technology specialist with the University of Missouri Extension.
He is part of a program at the university that provides education and an undergraduate certificate in precision agriculture for students enrolled in agriculture majors.
Shannon spoke with Iowa Farmer Today about precision agriculture and what the future might hold.
IFT: How would you define precision agriculture and its role?
SHANNON: I think it’s the understanding that we are using technology — from a crop production standpoint — to understand the variability that might exist in a field, and we can try to manage that in a better way. To get to that point, we have to use technology to capture that information.
IFT: The University of Missouri has a precision agriculture program. What is the focus of that program?
SHANNON: Beyond our bachelor’s degree program, we offer a certificate in precision agriculture. Right now, the students taking advantage of that are part of three or four majors usually. The main majors are ag systems technology, plant science students, as well as in the college of ag we have the general agriculture degree and others.
We have an overarching course that introduces everything from GPS and understanding variability from a soil nutrient standpoint and some basic sensors and yield monitoring. Then we have a course focused more on the hardware and machinery side of technology and how we can apply it from a variable rate standpoint and guidance.
We also have a course that focuses specifically on the data side where we spend the entire semester processing data from the combine, soil sampling and going through how we can develop software to create fertilizer recommendations. The final course in the sequence takes all those aspects and dives more into the economics of how we can use that technology.
IFT: Many younger farmers have grown up with this type of technology. Has that helped speed up the development of new innovations?
SHANNON: I don’t know necessarily if it does — it might have. But it creates a challenge from a teaching standpoint because you have students that maybe come from a background using that technology and other students that may not have been exposed to it. You can definitely tell the students that have been involved with it.
From an innovation standpoint and how we continue to be on a road of looking at how the technology can further advance, I don’t know if it’s being completely driven by the younger generation, but they seem to be much more attuned to how technology can make us better managers of an operation.
IFT: Autonomy is coming much closer to fields in 2023. How much autonomy are we seeing now and how soon will it become commonplace to see this technology in the field?
SHANNON: If you look at what has happened over the past year at the Farm Progress Show, we have some of the latest equipment having the option of some autonomy. John Deere has introduced — not this year, but the previous year — their radar tracker and being able to be autonomous from that standpoint.
There are some dealerships that can provide kits to make certain tractors autonomous, so we are as close as we’ve ever been. It’s being presented in a way where you have an option where we are making equipment autonomous, but it can still be run manually. I think it will be slowly adopted in certain areas in the U.S. I noticed one company has dealers in the panhandle of Texas which runs a lot of straight rows and big fields, but here in Missouri we have a bit different topography so we might be a little behind. It will eventually catch up.
When we think of sprayer drones, too, that industry has really taken off. It’s interesting to see it move forward.
IFT: Nitrogen management is also something you’ve referenced in articles on precision agriculture. How does precision ag affect this aspect of agriculture?
SHANNON: From more of a simplistic way. The things we do through our strip trial program, we are looking at ways we can continue to fine-tune rates. We went through the economics of fertilizer prices getting extremely high to figuring out what we can do. We’ve done experiments where we just add 30 pounds or take away 30 pounds from the producer rate and use that data, so farmers can dial in where they need to be.
We’ve also experimented with using imagery from drones to convert that information to a side dress application map. There’s different levels of how technology can be used to fine tune something like nitrogen management out on the farm.
IFT: Are there new advancements that aren’t getting as much attention at the moment that will be important moving forward?
SHANNON: It’s all about how much more efficient we can get at what we do. Theoretically, improving efficiency, we can improve someone’s bottom line. I’ve always said if we can ever get to the point where we can get a soil sample with some sort of sensor, instead of having to physically sample it, that’s an area we can do more research.
We have colleagues looking at plant breeding and how we can use technology and data collection to speed up things in that area.
Corporations are always working on things that we don’t necessarily see until they are introduced into the mainstream. Right now, cameras are focused on seeing and identifying weeds and spraying, but can we use that for other things?
Artificial intelligence has sort of become a mainstream thing right now from the standpoint of getting online and having something like ChatGPT write something for you. What kind of implications does that have for technology and how can we apply it to agriculture and understanding things in real time?
Some of the technology is using a picture and deciding what should be sprayed and I think that will be fine-tuned to do different things and that will be applied into autonomous things. Some of it is a little scary, but it all comes back to how we can utilize that kind of technology.