Ag News

Sen. Warnock discusses precision ag as work begins on farm bill

by Jennifer Whittaker, Georgia Farm Bureau

Posted on Apr 19, 2023 at 0:00 AM

By Jennifer Whittaker, Georgia Farm Bureau

U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock visited the UGA Iron Horse Plant Sciences Farm in Watkinsville April 13 to get a firsthand look at precision agriculture technology research the UGA College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences is doing. Warnock, a member of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee, also sat down with Athens-area farmers to hear how they utilize precision agriculture technology on their farms.

Warnock recently introduced the Promoting Precision Agriculture Act with Sen. John Thune (R-SD), which would create a federal working group to establish interconnectivity standards that would allow farmers to share precision ag data between different brands of farm equipment. Warnock and Thune are working to get their bill included in the 2023 farm bill.

“My bill directs the formation of a task force to develop connectivity standards for different brands of precision ag technology equipment like we have for cell phones,” Warnock said. “We’ve also got to get the rural broadband piece right. You’ve got to have good rural broadband connection for this equipment to work at its optimum capability. This will not only help farmers but will also help rural communities in general.”

Warnock has made improving Georgia’s broadband infrastructure a priority and has secured more than $570 million in federal funds to do this to date. In December, Warnock announced $250 million in American Rescue Funding will be invested in expanding broadband access in Georgia.

Warnock joined a UGA representative in a tractor equipped with global position satellite (GPS) equipment. The tractor ride demonstrated how GPS allows farmers to use the auto steer feature on various types of farm equipment to work their fields. Warnock learned how soil and crop sensors equipped with GPS collects data relayed to farmers’ computers, tablets or phones that help them determine how much fertilizer or crop management chemicals to apply to specific parts of their field based on plant health and soil temperature and moisture.

Farmers share how they use precision ag technology & discuss challenges

Athens-area farmers who met with Sen. Warnock at the UGA Iron Horse Farm to discuss how they utilize precision ag technology on their farms were: Tommy Crowe of Oconee County; Caroline Lewallen of Habersham County; Lee Nunn of Morgan County; Charlie Sanders of Greene County; and Eric Elsner, superintendent of the UGA J. Phil Campbell/Iron Horse Farm.

Crowe, a pecan grower, said he uses precision ag equipment to determine the rates at which fertilizer, water and crop management chemicals are applied in his pecan orchard.

“We try to get it down to the ounce of giving each tree what it needs in terms of water, fertilizer and chemicals,” Crowe said.

Besides using precision ag technology to produce forage crops, dairy farmer Sanders said his family uses it to mix customized rations for cows based on their health and metabolic needs for their milk production rates.

Nunn, a diversified row crop farmer, said he’s been using precision ag technology for about ten years to produce his row crops. He estimates precision ag technology has allowed him to decrease the amount of fertilizer he applies to his fields by at least 15% and decrease water applied to his crops via irrigation by 20 to 25%.

“Most of my equipment has some sort of precision ag technology on it whether it’s auto steer [tractor] or data collection,” Nunn said. “Precision ag technology helps me use minimum inputs to grow my crops.”

Lewallen, who raises beef sold directly to consumers, suggested that language be included in the next farm bill to provide grants or low interest loans to make existing camera technology that grades beef carcasses more accessible for small rural USDA-inspected facilities.

“If these facilities could begin offering grading services, small producers could command higher prices for their beef,” Lewallen said.

When Warnock asked the farmers to share challenges they face when using ag technology, all said lack of broadband internet prevents them from using their precision ag equipment at its full potential.

Elsner said the inability of different brands of equipment to “talk” to each other or share data is a hold-up. “If you have an iPhone and I have an android, we can still talk to each other, but it’s not like that when it comes to sharing data between different ag equipment brands.”

UGA’s Institute for Integrative Precision Agriculture shares research

During his visit to the UGA Iron Horse Farm, Sen. Warnock met with Dr. Jaime Camelio, co-director of UGA’s Institute for Integrative Precision Agriculture, UGA Dr. Nick Place, dean & director of the College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences, Kevin Abernethy, UGA vice president for government relations, and Dr. Don Leo, dean of UGA’s College of Engineering.

Dr. Simerjeet Virk, UGA Extension precision ag specialist and assistant professor of crop/soil sciences, told Warnock how he and other UGA faculty and their grad students are studying how farmers can best use different models of drones and small robots to apply pesticides & herbicides and to monitor the health and progress of their crops. 

Dr. Guoyu Lu, a faculty member of UGA’s Institute for Integrative Precision Agriculture showed Warnock how a ground robot equipped with thermal sensors and cameras can be used to build a crop field map. As the robot moves through the rows of a crop, it collects photos and information about the appearance of crop plants, yellow or green leaf color, plant temperature, and water stress.

Lu said the robot, which runs on batteries, can be recharged in about 40 minutes. How many acres the robot can cover and how long it can operate before its batteries need recharging depends on the speed at which the user runs the robot and the type of terrain it covers.

“If the robot is run fast, it may operate 30 minutes. If it is run at a slow speed, the robot may go more than one hour,” Lu said. “The same for the number of acres the robot can cover. If we need to walk around the crop field without going inside the field, the robot could cover 10 acres, even more. But if the robot needs to go through the crop field, row by row, then it totally depends on the density of the crop. It could cover maybe one to two acres going row by row.”

Cole Byers, a UGA masters student of agricultural engineering, demonstrated a flying drone equipped with cameras to take an aerial view of crop plants. Data collected by his drone can be used in combination with a ground robot to give farmers a multi-dimensional report on their crops’ health and progress. 

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