Education on your farm

Precision agriculture has its fans and its naysayers, but it is an often misunderstood management system. Receiving a quality education on the concept can demonstrate the benefits for your operation. Now, one university is bringing hands-on training right to the farm.

What is precision agriculture?

Will Henderson, extension precision ag specialist for Clemson University’s Cooperative Extension Service, jokes that some growers think that his area of expertise is all about buying fancy toys.

The John Deere SeedStar XP monitoring system, released in July 2010, allows producers to monitor and adjust a wide variety of planting operations on the go for optimal seed placement and increased productivity.

However, that isn’t completely accurate. Although information technologies such as global positioning systems (GPS), geographical information systems (GIS) and remote sensing are employed, the overall goal is better farming. Remote sensing, soil sampling and information management tools are put to work to optimize agricultural production. By using these tools, input and management practices can be honed given changing conditions in the field. Soil traits and pest pressure are plugged in to the equation to improve the bottom line, better utilize human resources and enhance environmental protection.

Auburn University’s Dr. John Fulton and Daniel Mullenix, in an overview of the concept, say that precision ag is a comprehensive approach that begins with crop planning and continues throughout the season to post-harvest processing. By combining advanced technology with existing farm equipment, they are convinced that yield can be maximized while losses are minimized. Not only do growers save input dollars, they also use their time more efficiently.

The basic tool is the GPS; for agricultural purposes, it is mounted atop a tractor. Its communications help the operator program the tractor’s computer to carry out tasks, such as automatically driving in a specific direction. As additional technologies are employed, site-specific management of fertilizer, pesticide, irrigation and other inputs can be scientifically analyzed, determined and automated.

Foster and Mullenix say that precision ag management techniques can save operations 8 to 30 percent in annual expenses, even when applied to relatively small farms.

The sky’s the limit for finding new ways to put technology to work on the farm. John Deere’s SeedStar product aids in optimal seed placement. In the future, look for high-tech gadgets that are more user-friendly. Telematics, through which growers can monitor conditions and equipment from distant locations, will become more important. Advanced GPS units, wireless communication and Web-based management software will allow for equipment monitoring from inside the home or from a vacation spot. Likewise, autonomous machine operation, something akin to advanced remote control, will eliminate the need for human operators in some cases.

The self-contained mobile unit takes field days to the farm and demonstrates the advantage of precision ag.

Developing mobile technology education

When learning about precision ag or any new method, hands-on, face-to-face demonstrations beat written instructions. That’s the reason why field days are so popular. Growers can gather at a university, experiment station or farm to see firsthand how a technique works. However, traditional field days do have their drawbacks. It can be difficult to get away from the farm and travel to a meeting in another area.

That’s one reason Henderson, based at Clemson’s Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville, S. C., wanted to take the field day to the farmers. He found that the same people usually attended events, so he wanted to take the show on the road to reach a wider audience.

Planning for the Clemson University Mobile Precision Ag Lab began in early 2009. Combining campus public service activity funds with grant monies from the Environmental Protection Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service, the unit was unveiled in the summer of 2009.

“Much of precision ag is devoted to agronomics, but we are trying to include all aspects of management, including integrated pest management,” Henderson says.

A global positioning system antenna (top of operator’s cab) and a yield monitor allow an onboard computer to plot corn yields about every 6 feet as the combine moves along. Data stored in the computer can later be used to produce color-coded yield maps for each field.

Although some private companies have mobile educational units, the Clemson technology center on wheels is believed to be the first sponsored by a public institution.

A look at the mobile lab

The mobile unit, housed in an enclosed cargo trailer and hitched to a pickup truck, contains everything needed to educate growers on the benefits of precision ag. Its electrical systems can be powered by a generator or plugged into an electrical outlet. In the future, Henderson hopes it can be run by solar power with a backup battery in order to be fully self-contained.

Will Henderson displays the cpabilities of the precision ag mobile unit during a field day.

Components include a 52-inch high-definition TV, an audio system with speakers, and video equipment for displaying DVDs or PowerPoint presentations. Henderson says that holding an educational seminar on a farm is ideal because after viewing presentations, participants can go into the field for a real-world look at the same concept. Likewise, the unit’s Web camera, or “ag cam,” can transmit live feed a half mile, allowing workshop attendees to view equipment in action from the trailer. Live data from Henderson’s center and other Clemson research centers can be shown, as can real-time results of university studies. Participants have the opportunity to observe directly how precision ag can make growing more efficient and profitable.

Such small group or even one-on-one sessions in a local community help people understand how the management system works, and how it can solve specific problems in their locales. In addition, Henderson finds that farmers are more likely to ask questions in more intimate settings.

Benefits of mobile precision ag units

Henderson says the mobile nature of his classroom has several benefits for growers. In addition to serving as an additional training opportunity, going to a particular farm or community helps Henderson hone his presentations to the precise climatic and soil conditions with which his audience is working. Farmers are pleased to have educators come to their area, saving their own time and travel funds.

“Although the equipment is a big draw, the best feature is the mobility and flexibility, ” Henderson says. “We can move from county to county and do several demonstrations in a matter of hours.”

Goals for the future include adding a second lab and establishing a multistate program. Until that happens, check with your extension service for training opportunities. Web-based education, such as a University of Georgia program (, is also available.

Henderson believes that the mobile lab is key to encouraging farmers to try precision ag by thinking beyond the investment costs and showing the benefits.

“The unit shows that we can break large fields into smaller units and better manage them, ” Henderson adds. “This is not Grandpa’s day; it’s a global market, and we have to be wiser and more competitive with our dollars.”

Mobile Lab Live

View Clemson’s mobile lab in action: