In the late '90s and early 2000s Southeast Community College instructor Rich Douglass mounted cameras to a kite and began photographing farmland. It’s a far cry from the drones of today, but that was the liftoff for the precision agriculture program at SCC.
Last year the budding program branched off from the agriculture and applied sciences departments to form its own certificate program, in part to help employers see that students have developed skills working with ag technologies.
SCC was able to build the program thanks to a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor that has helped the college to purchase equipment that it wouldn’t have otherwise had available.
“It’s the hot topic right now,” said Annie Erichsen, chairwoman of the Precision Agriculture Certificate Program at SCC-Beatrice. “Some of the kids (in the program) that are going back home to farm, their parents have said to them, ‘Hey you need to go learn this stuff because maybe I’m not as advanced in it.’”
The adoption of precision ag technologies by Nebraska farmers ranks 6 percent higher than all other corn states, according to a 2016 USDA report by David Schimmelpfennig. The most common precision ag technologies include tractor guidance using a global positioning system, GPS soil and yield mapping and variable-rate input applications. In Nebraska there is a growing interest in variable rate irrigation, as well.
While the use of drones for precision agriculture is growing, it isn't included on many USDA surveys because it isn't seen as widely adopted. But the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group, in 2013 predicted drones for agricultural use will make up 80 percent of all drone sales in the U.S. by 2022.
Drones can measure stress on plants, irrigation water management and plant population counts, and as innovation drives improvements, the potential to pinpoint problem areas and make decisions only increases, officials said.
The data collected can provide farmers insight into what different areas of their farms need. Rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach to applying fertilizer, for example, farmers can put resources where they are needed most and save on areas that may need less management.
In Nebraska the highest rates of adoption of precision ag technologies occur on large farms with higher incomes and predictably farms with smartphone-using operators, according to a 2016 study by the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. Younger farmers and farmers that use irrigation also tended to adopt precision ag technologies at higher rates.
In the USDA report, Schimmelpfennig found that, of the technologies he was looking at, all had small positive impacts on net returns and operating profits for the average U.S. corn farm. GPS mapping, specifically, had the largest estimated impact, with an increase in operating profit of almost 3 percent on corn farms.