High-Tech Ag Grows Program

John Greathouse and Bob StephensonJanuary 18, 1999
High Plains Journal
by Larry Dreiling

L to R: Dr. John Greathouse, FHSU Ag Department Chair,
Steve Englehardt, Farm Manager, and Dr. Bob Stephenson,
Associate Professor.

The last few months have not been the best of times for agricultural producers.
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 satellites.

"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 now."

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."