“We’ve been diverted from innovation for a while in the spray industry as we tackled spray drift issues,” says Ken Giles, University of California-Davis professor of agricultural engineering. “In the next 10 years, the focus is going to shift from drift reduction to precision placement of chemicals. We’re going to focus on targeted coverage and how consistent application can be within that targeted coverage.”
The future will see bigger sprayers with a tighter resolution in precision. Instead of controlling boom sections, Giles says, systems will be able to control each individual nozzle. This will require moving more technology and electronics onto the spray boom and closer to each nozzle. Chemicals may also need to make the move to the boom to allow for variable-rate and mixture applications as determined by sensors.
“As electronics become miniaturized and sensors and actuators become more robust and cheaper, we will see them in more areas on the boom and throughout the machine,” Giles says. “We already have clogged nozzle sensors and there will be an increasing amount of instrumentation on the boom.”
Monitoring systems and machine help applications in the next 10 years will likely include detectors that monitor the condition of pumps, the quality of the chemical mixture being applied and its uniformity. These technologies and processes are in use in other industries, such as food processing, Giles says, and are primed to make the jump to agricultural chemical application, especially on food-grade crops.
If you’re thinking that Professor Giles is a few years behind in his predictions for agricultural application technologies, the fact of the matter is he made these comments 5 years ago. They appeared as part of a special report in Farm Equipment in September 2011 entitled, “What Will Agriculture Look Like in 2021?”
Data is the Next Frontier for Ag to Conquer
Most of the experts interviewed for this report agree that the available application technology will not be utilized to its fullest extent until the industry is able to harness the rapidly expanding amount of agronomic data that is being amassed, almost daily, by North American farmers.
Mike Martinez of Trimble Agriculture sums up the ag data situation simply: “There’s data from satellites, data from your machine, weather data. Data is not the issue. Turning that data into actionable solutions is the issue. Even the farmers who are actively managing their data are telling us, ‘Don’t give me another piece of data. Tell me how I can use what I’ve got to improve my operations!’”
“Data is going to be key to really utilizing all of the technology out there,” says James Fehr, general manager of the Application Division of Jenner Ag, Harristown, Ill. “I love data. But if you don’t have a tool to dissect the data, you don’t have anything. You’ve got to have something that helps you better understand the data that you have. You can look at all the maps and all the pretty colors, but if you don’t have something that can actually sort through the different layers of data and give you some type of a solution, the data becomes just a bunch of stuff.”
Looking 1-5 years ahead, Tim Heins of Raven Industries says a lot of companies will be spending a lot of money in the data space. “Most of it will be aimed at helping farmers determine the impact of their decisions,” he says.
While spray drift remains a significant issue, it would appear that the good professor’s predictions about how ag application technologies would evolve are well underway and pretty much on schedule.
The remainder of this report focuses on developments in applying fertilizers and agricultural chemicals, as well as how they are helping to reduce farmer costs while making headway in attacking some of growers’ biggest challenges.
Special Report Table of Contents
Three years of low grain prices are forcing farmers to minimize production costs. Developments in how they apply inputs will be an important part of growers’ cost cutting.
Few signs point to a recovery in crop prices in the near term, which is making it imperative growers find ways to hold down costs.
Developments in applying crop nutrients and pesticides have come fast and furious during the last decade. Many of the newest breakthroughs are aimed at ‘site-specific’ management of inputs, nozzles and individual nozzle control, and soil applications.