Fort Hays State University > About FHSU > Academic Divisions > College of Health and Life Sciences > Department of Agriculture > University Farm > HPJ Article
January 18, 1999
High Plains Journal
by Larry Dreiling
L to R: Dr. John Greathouse, FHSU Ag Department
Steve Englehardt, Farm Manager, and Dr. Bob Stephenson,
The last few months have not been the best of times for agricultural
Low prices have wrecked havoc on already slim profit margins. This,
in turn, has caused producers to delay major equipment purchases
or improvements to herds and farmsteads.
All the while, there is the promise of a brighter
future. It is a future shaped through progress in crop and livestock
genetics. It is shaped by crop protection product suppliers, which
are reformulating their wares to improve efficacy while caring for
the environment. It is shaped by the use of satellite-derived yield
monitoring. And soil mapping technology is becoming more farmer-friendly
to understand and cheaper to obtain.
It is with a focus on the current economic situation
in agriculture and an eye toward its future that Fort Hays State
University, Hays, KS has developed what is thought to be the United
States' only four-year undergraduate precision agriculture education
program. The program consists of instruction in the collection of
yield data and soil sampling information via global positioning
"We define precision ag as using technology to
optimize production," says Dr. John Greathouse, chair of the
FHSU Department of Agriculture and superintendent of the University
Farm. "I use the term optimize, because I think there is a
misinterpretation that we should use this technology to maximize
production. We are very concerned about economic efficiency. There
is an economic threshold to all of this. It is a driving question
as we relate to the technology that 'Is this affordable technology
for us to use in precision agriculture?'
"The research is being performed on all of that,
but the problem is we don't have enough research and there are too
many variables to deal with. The exciting thing about our situation
is that we are not research-oriented here within the Department
of Agriculture at Fort Hays. We are into practical application of
the available technology that producers can use out there right
Only in development since last spring, the program
is giving students hands-on knowledge of precision ag techniques.
This knowledge is valuable, not just to students who may return
to their family's farm upon graduation, but also to possible employers
of FHSU graduates.
"From the academic perspective, we know we have
to provide information on current technology," Greathouse says.
"For some time, we have been sharing information on this technology
with our students--things like the Global Positioning System--in
the agronomy classrooms, but we didn't have the direct exposure
to demonstrate to students. It is fairly expensive to get into.
"From a business perspective, there have been
some crop consulting companies which were coming to us and saying
our graduates should have more information in precision ag to assist
them in their ventures. We recognized that as an opportunity that
we really should be pursuing for the benefit of the students. We
have very good contacts with the crop consulting companies in the
surrounding region--from western Kansas, eastern Colorado and into
northern Nebraska--and we have placed a number of student interns
with these firms and have quite a few alumni working for these firms.
"We work with Crop Quest and Servi-Tech, which
are based in Dodge City, to place interns and graduates. We work
with Collingwood Grain and with Farmland Industries and their CMS
program. We also have plenty of private consultants with whom we
place interns. We recognized from their standpoint that our students
need this education."
Developing students for a society filled with new
computer technology has been a major component of the educational
process at FHSU since the arrival of Dr. Edward Hammond as the university's
president in 1987. His concept for a "high-tech, high-touch"
learning environment has led to the promise that all graduates will
be made fully computer literate and flexible. This includes agriculture
students, as well.
"Working with Dr. Hammond, we identified where
the industry was with the technology. Dr. Hammond provided us some
seed money to acquire the equipment necessary to provide instruction
to our students," Greathouse says. "He asked us how much
we needed. We identified for him what we had an interest in purchasing,
and he signed off on it. Then, we started with the acquisition of
the basic equipment.
"We purchased a Polaris Sportsman four-wheel
all-terrain vehicle unit equipped with a satellite receiver unit
and a computer," Greathouse says. "The computer uses a
pen pointing device. It is designed for use over rugged terrain.
It is a nice device, because it allows us to go out with this whole
hookup for establishing positions and for soil sampling."
The computer which is mounted onto the ATV was designed
for rough service--as in for use on a modern battle tank--according
to FHSU's lead instructor in soil sciences.
"This computer was a big part of the tank usage
in Operation Desert Storm," says Dr. Bob Stephenson, associate
Professor of agriculture. "Everything is enclosed in the unit.
We can pick up exactly where we are at and then drive along the
borders of our field to establish our maps. As you drive, you see
exactly where you have driven.
"End the program, and you have drawn a map which
reads out the acreage. One thing we have is a lot of acres on terraces.
We will be using this system to measure the exact size of those
terraces. Over the years, the terraces have moved and sometimes
we weren't real sure how many acres were on those terraces. Down
the road, we will be able to look at yield in those exact spots
and get a better understanding of what we want to do with them agronomically.
"It also has a system where, with the scanning
pen, we can use bar coded tags to place on soil sampling bags to
get an exact readout of where on the grid we have sampled. It is
real slick," he says.
"Once that purchase was made, offers of support
from agribusiness began to appear. Soil testing laboratories offered
soil analyses at reduced costs. Several companies made software
donations. One firm, Kansas City-based Agronomy Service Bureau,
donated a mapping program. Farmland Industries donated their integrated
crop management software package. It will be introduced in agronomy
classes this spring.
"The Farmland software is kind of a decision-based
type of program, where you enter all the information about your
fields and then it performs 'what if?' scenarios about chemical
applications. It will really generate some thought-provoking output,"
Greathouse says. "This is the stuff the students need exposure
to. It they are going to be working for, say, a Farmland Industries,
or any place from a crop consulting perspective, they are going
to be a step ahead of somebody who has not been exposed to this
type of technology."
Contact with Deere and Co. later in the spring gave
the program an unexpected lift, the educator says.
"Quite frankly, John Deere just took the reins
of things and donated a 9510 Maximizer combine, which was set up
with the GreenStar yield monitoring system," Greathouse says.
"It had all the bells and whistles, which are very important.
It provided an additional opportunity for us to demonstrate even
more breadth with this precision ag instruction. They also donated
their John Deere MAP software."
The new combine made an immediate improvement to the
University Farm's operation, Greathouse says. "John Deere has
been a pleasure to work with--from the technical staff at Ochs,
Inc., in Otis, to the John Deere Training Center, in Wichita--to
help us have a better understanding of the equipment. That support
is very important.
"We are the only university in the central part
of the U.S. to which John Deere has made such a substantial financial
and educational commitment. As far as we know, we are the only four-year
institution in the country offering this level of hands-on exposure
to precision agriculture instruction to undergraduates.
"I want to be careful here, and add that there
are some jucos which are doing some good, practical things with
precision ag education. Hutchinson Community College is doing a
lot of things with precision ag. If we do research, it's undergraduate
research. We want to look at the breadth of the education to real-life
production agriculture. That is a very exciting thing for us
to get into."
Most of students' time with all this new technology
takes place on 800 acres of the 3,800-acre University Farm, which
is the major portion of land received by the state of Kansas when
it was ceded by the U.S. government upon the closure of the former
Fort Hays military reservation. As part of the movement toward more
modern production techniques, the farm is moving from a continuous
wheat crop and wheat-fallow rotation to a rotation of two different
crops in three years.
"Two of the fields we've worked with once were
fields with continuous-cropped wheat," Stephenson says. "We
are trying to go to two crops in three years. Over the years, we
have moved to a wheat-sorghum-fallow rotation using fewer tillage
passes and occasionally some use of Roundup."
The process of data collection already has begun in
earnest, Stephenson adds.
"We are doing soil sampling within two-acre grids,"
he says. "Most producers are using four- and five-acre grids,
primarily because of economics. The sites we sampled this fall were
in wheat last summer. They will be in milo this season. We will
vary our fertilizer rates to adjust to that crop.
"In all honesty, I knew there may have been some
variability from one terrace to another, but at same time, I didn't
see a big change from topography or elevation. I didn't expect to
see differences in phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium levels, but
there were some of significance. For example, on one sample pass,
(our crop consultants) were recommending 50 pounds of P per acre
in some case and in some other cases, zero.
The instructors believe the decision-making process
concerning changes to a precision farming operation takes about
three crop years to develop a solid database of information. As
an educational institution, Greathouse says, the FHSU farm will
look at making changes sooner rather than later.
"That is one of the neat things about the University
Farm. We have about 800 acres into this. You have to look across
the country at what undergraduate students have access to learn
from. We can all do textbook learning, but when you can actually
start demonstrating something, that's really neat."
The future for the program looks even brighter, Greathouse
says, with the hoped-for addition of new equipment which can demonstrate
even higher levels of agricultural technology to students.
"We are looking at variable-rate planters and
chemical applicators," Greathouse says. "We also are looking
into teaching remote sensing--using satellite images of fields with
infra-red and near-infra-red technology to create hyperspectral
images. We want to look at plant stress using this technology as
well. What a neat addition that would be for the undergraduate students.
"In addition, one of our interests is service
to our region. This effort, I think, is going to lead to workshops
in the very near future and perhaps create a short course to assist
those in the agriculture community."
The current application of precision agriculture education
at FHSU is designed specifically toward agronomy and agribusiness
students, helping them learn not only the basics of the technology,
but also the financial considerations producers need to know to
help them better assess its feasibility for their operations. Greathouse
thinks precision ag education eventually can span over a wide area
of expertise, including animal science, agribusiness and ag economics.
"Agriculture is in a difficult time, as we have suffered tremendously
with these low prices. With profit margins so tight as they are,
we need to be progressively looking into technology that will improve
our financial position," Greathouse says. "That's where
optimizing technology comes into play. If we ignore technology,
we are only shooting ourselves in the foot. We may not apply it,
but at least we will have looked into it. It's so new and the opportunities
so diverse that we owe it to the students and the public to look
into the true applicability of this technology."