Federal grant funds precision agriculture partnership between FHSU, HCC

 

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HAYS, Kan. -- Agriculture at Fort Hays State University and Hutchinson Community College has been awarded a $277,243 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture for a precision agriculture partnership.

Precision agriculture involves using GPS and satellite technology to map fields and precisely apply chemicals and seed and measure the crop yield.

"One of the exciting things about this is being one of the lead institutions to get these funds, and that was through a competitive process," said Dr. John Greathouse, chair of the Department of Agriculture at FHSU.

The 2008 Farm Bill authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund this kind of grant under the title Capacity Building Grants for Non-Land Grant Colleges of Agriculture. A $4.5 million appropriation in fall 2011 was made available through a competitive grant process to distribute the funding.

The primary goal, in the language of the grant, is to expand "the capacity (of non-land grant universities) to conduct education, research and outreach activities relating to agriculture, renewable resources and other similar disciplines."

Dr. Craig Smith, assistant professor of agriculture at FHSU, is the principal investigator for the project, which is designed to enhance the technical and analytical skills of students and producers using advanced precision agriculture technologies. The grant is a collaborative venture between FHSU and agriculture faculty from HCC. The grant allows both institutions to purchase equipment.

Co-principal investigators at HCC are Steve Sears, agriculture agronomy instructor, and Dale Conard, ag-diesel coordinator and instructor.

Both schools will use grant money to acquire equipment. FHSU will acquire a field tractor with auto-steer capability and a 60-foot crop sprayer with automatic boom section control for use on the 3,800-acre University Farm, said Smith. HCC will purchase a GPS-compatible grain combine and a farm utility vehicle with soil grid sampling equipment.

At HCC, on the college's 425-acre farm, Sears and his students will use the equipment in the field. The farm utility vehicle will be used with the soils class as one of the laboratory sessions. The class will map out five-acre blocks to collect soil samples and then map zones of similar soil properties. Then soil inputs will be applied with variable-rate technology, which adjusts the application -- chemical or seed -- in different zones in the field. The combine will be used by the ag-diesel students in the combine classes.

Students in the fields at HCC will learn to use the auto-steer functions and the equipment and software that controls fertilizer and seed amounts. They will learn to use equipment that has auto-shutoff functions that control planters and sprayers section by section to eliminate over-planting and over-spraying. They will learn to make the practical kinds of applications that can make equipment pay for itself.

"We're good at collecting data, and Fort Hays State will be helpful in evaluating data and turning it into information," said Sears. "It will be a good partnership for both colleges."

A textbook description of precision agriculture, said FHSU's Smith, is "site-specific management of crops for purposes of reducing waste, increasing profits and improving the quality of the environment." In layman's terms, "Precision agriculture is using technology in agriculture to increase efficiency and increase profits."

In the field, he said, "We want to be able to map yields, perform some precision soil sampling and mapping, and create seed and fertilizer prescription maps."

"We'll tailor the application of fertilizer and, eventually, seed inputs to the specific soil or crop needs throughout individual fields, with the potential of varying it down to the foot." This means changing fertilizer rates and chemical application rates throughout a particular field based on soil and plant needs.

"Back in the classroom," he said, "we'll focus on how to analyze and use the data with a goal of profit maximization."

One technology that has proven itself profitable in the production ag industry is automatic boom section controllers for crop sprayers. "In the classroom, we spend some time analyzing the economics of  investing in technologies such as these," said Smith. "This grant provides an opportunity to then go out to the field and give students some hands-on experience with the technology."

Precision ag technology can be highly precise with different levels of precision required for different field operations. "The tractor's GPS display records its exact location at any given moment, meaning latitude and longitude, down to two or three inches," said Smith. "There's equipment out there that will take you down to the centimeter, sub-inch level, but that precision isn't necessary for what we want to do at this time.

"I would stress that technology like this isn't anything new," he said. "A lot of farmers have been mapping fields for 15 years or more, but many of them aren't doing much with the data. They aren't using it to its full potential. They aren't using it in their production decisions."

This means, he said, "they have pretty maps. They're neat to look at, but a lot of times they don't go much further with them. We're trying to teach our students how to use this data to help to make profitable management decisions."

It is this kind of information that will go back and forth between HCC and FHSU, from the fields where the data are gathered to the computer labs for analysis, and then back again to the fields so that students can learn to use it.

Smith said that yield mapping and variable rate seeding will be possible through the support of Carrico Implement, Hays, Ellsworth and Beloit. "We’ve had great support and cooperation from Carrico Implement in the past, and it is our hope that this grant allows us to strengthen that industry relationship and build several more," said Smith.

But there is another key piece of the partnership -- the ag-diesel program at Hutchinson Community College. Part of HCC's portion of the grant will procure a much newer combine to replace a 1979 model that is simply not compatible with modern precision agriculture equipment, said Conard, the ag-diesel coordinator. The new combine will be precision agriculture capable, "but our students will install the components and make those work together, and learn how to calibrate and set it up in the field."

"Our students will be able to do the install and then be able to troubleshoot it year after year, and repair it and use it on the HCC farm," he said. "Beyond that, our students can be trained on how to service that equipment, work on it and troubleshoot it in addition to installing it."

He summarized, "Our angle is service. We're trying to teach the techs that will go into the dealerships. We're not trying to interpret the data, we're just setting up the equipment."

HCC's ag-diesel program has two classes in combines, said Conard. Students learn to work on all the systems -- electrical, hydraulic, the various sensors, air conditioning, engine and powertrain. The grant will provide them not only with new equipment to work on, but more.

"For us, this is going to help in those classes," he said, "having new equipment to work on and then the GPS equipment, too. This will be a good asset for the program."

"Part of the grant is the collaboration between the two institutions," said HCC's Sears. "We're going to go back and forth with some students and we're also going to develop a 2-plus-2 transfer agreement that specifically includes a practical and applied precision agriculture component. They could start with us to get the practical, mechanical side of the degree here and get the management and the application of the data at Fort Hays State."

FHSU has what are called 2-plus-2 articulation agreements with community colleges across Kansas covering several different programs. These articulation agreements lay out the classes required in both schools to ensure a seamless, painless transition from the community college to FHSU. With these agreements in place, students and advisers at both schools can know exactly what course work is required, and therefore credit transfers for course work are assured.

In this particular partnership, "Hutch's component is using the equipment and maintaining it, and we add on to that by analyzing and interpreting the data for future application," said Greathouse.

"This strengthens our bond with HCC. We are looking to have a stronger transfer and articulation program, and this is a component that helps us make the transition of students in here even smoother and easier. It is really for those students who have a desire to focus on the application, utilization and advancement of precision agriculture technologies."