Planning for a Research Project
Understanding Precision Agriculture
Precision agriculture is a growing area of interest for Ontario’s farmers. Some farmers have taken up precision farming techniques on their own and some with the help of crop advisors or consultants, but many farmers are not sure where to start. The availability of equipment and sensors to support precision farming techniques far exceeds local knowledge on practical starting points for farmers, and which techniques may be profitable on Ontario farms.
In September 2013, Grain Farmers of Ontario, OMAFRA Field Crops Extension team members Ian McDonald and Greg Stewart, and OMAFRA Land Resource Specialist Nicole Rabe organized a meeting to discuss precision agriculture research priorities. Mike Duncan, NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Precision Agriculture, and his team from Niagara College were invited, as well as Ontario farmers with experience in precision farming, crop consultants and equipment retailers. While some of the retailers and consultants may be competitors in the industry, everyone agreed that the farmers and the industry would benefit from a collaborative effort to explain the use of certain technologies and practices and to build confidence in the benefits of precision farming techniques.
The group discussed the obstacles preventing farmers from initiating precision farming practices, and what farmers and consultant might need to break through those barriers. They also discussed the various practices that are assumed to be most practical and beneficial for Ontario farms, and possible research projects. It was clear that any eventual research project results should focus on seed and nitrogen, the most expensive farm inputs, but the spirit of the effort encompasses much more. The group saw a need to build better evidence on the benefits of precision agriculture practices. They wanted to reduce the confusion surrounding data management and equipment compatibility, and to show the average farmer how to use these new tools and how to tie all the different precision farming possibilities together. They were hopeful that results of a research project could provide justification on the costs for the farmer. Ultimately, all the partners saw value in contributing to a research project, sharing on-farm data and being open about their approach to precision agriculture towards development of OMAFRA-validated recommendations.
As a result of the meeting, a 4 year research project was initiated, titled Precision Agriculture Advancement for Ontario. Collaborators include OMAFRA extension specialists, Niagara College, Premier Equipment, Delta Power, Thompsons Ltd, Hensall Co-Op, Veritas, Practical Precision and 24 grain farmers. Many additional service providers are involved including University of Guelph, McGill University and SGS Canada Inc. Funding is provided by Grain Farmers of Ontario and through Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.
Farmer collaborators came to the project with a 50 acre field and a minimum of 3 years of yield data, as well as equipment capable of carrying out variable rate fertilizer and seed application. Many farmers are providing additional data at their own cost, such as RTK-GPS elevation data from guidance systems, or soil sensor data (e.g. VERISTM, SoilOptixTM) . During the first year of the project, data collected on each farm by the researchers includes elevation (if not provided by co-operator), electrical conductivity (DualEMTM) soil texture, soil fertility , organic matter/carbon, and aerial imagery. Using this data, stable management zones will be defined across each farm field. Management zones are areas within the field that have similar yield potential based on the collected data, and based on the farmers’ knowledge of the field. Maps of the management zones are created, and used to match crop inputs to yield potential in each zone across the field.
Researchers are planning to evaluate which variables or data layers are most valuable in defining management zones, and then validating and capturing the methods of creating these zones in reusable algorithms. Once the management zones are defined for each farm in the project, the researchers and crop consultants will work together to develop variable rate fertilizer and seed prescriptions for corn, soybeans and wheat. Based on yield potential and the agronomic factors dictating that yield potential, each management zone within a field will receive, for example, a different rate of nitrogen fertilizer. Researchers will also build validation plots into the prescriptions. Validation plots are a lot like “automated” digital small plot research trials set within each management zone. For example, while the prescribed nitrogen fertilizer rate for a certain management zone may be 100 lbs/ac, researchers will include blocks of higher and lower rates within that management zone to test whether the prescription was correct.
A major part of the project is the development of a web portal by collaborators at Niagara College. The portal is both a data repository for the project and a technology demonstrator for the tools needed to do precision ag. The portal hosts a transparent set of tools with explanations as to how the tools work and how best to use them to manipulate the data towards project goals. The portal, accessed online, houses all of the various data layers from each farm. The portal has built-in algorithms and tools for cleaning and analyzing data, and conducting comparisons and calculations. The portal creates digital maps of the field with defined management zones. There are currently different types of software on the market that can be used for similar purposes, but the portal allows the collaborators complete control over the algorithms used to process data. It allows farmer and crop consultant collaborators to upload and manipulate their own data, while the researchers can access and analyze the data of all participants. It makes uploading and sharing data easy.
After each growing season, researchers, consultants and cooperators can refine and validate the management zones they have created. They will also determine if the crop input prescriptions were appropriate and analyze the economic and environmental benefits of precision application based on production efficiency. Case studies will be presented to Ontario farmers on the steps that were taken on individual farms, and what the outcome was including yield and economic cost/benefit assessments. Researchers also hope to report on the experience of the farmer, the equipment that was used throughout the project, and ultimately recommendations for the average farmer on how to develop and use management zones.
Future articles on the project will look at why the various collaborators have volunteered to be a part of the project, and more detailed descriptions of the field activities and data portal.
This project was funded in part through Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. The Agricultural Adaptation Council assists in the delivery of Growing Forward 2 in Ontario.