Precision ag summit highlights ways to leverage data, technology in farming

(02/22/24) ALEXANDRIA, La. — When someone is sick, a doctor often will write a prescription to cure the ailment. In modern-day agriculture, high-tech tools can help farmers write different kinds of prescriptions to address problems in their fields — like determining how much and where fertilizer should be applied to be most effective.

Diagnosing and treating the exact cause of issues revealed by the multitude of data points gathered by today’s tractors and gadgets like drones is not always a straightforward process, however. And with so much data at their fingertips, it’s easy for farmers to become either overwhelmed by all that information or overeager, tempted to try to fix too many things at once.

Take a step back and focus on small changes that will pay off, Zach Reynolds advised attendees of a recent precision agriculture summit hosted by the LSU AgCenter.

“Think about the low-hanging fruit for growers you work with or on your farm where you can make an impact,” said Reynolds, a research project manager with Mississippi State University’s Water Resources Research Institute and the keynote speaker at the Feb. 16 AgCenter summit held near Alexandria.

He suggested using data to map out “extreme” areas — those that do either particularly well or very poorly — and making adjustments in those places instead of tackling entire fields. That could mean reallocating resources to push yields even higher in a good spot or choosing to save money by cutting inputs in a section of a field that just won’t perform no matter what is done.

Mead Hardwick, who farms with his family in Tensas Parish, shared similar advice. Instead of using variable-rate technology for applying fertilizer in every field, he has used data and computer programs to generate “prescriptions” to give him the most bang for his buck. He uses the tools to pinpoint areas that would benefit from variable-rate applications most while sticking with traditional, uniform spraying elsewhere.

“It helps you identify fields to focus on and where variable rate really makes sense,” he said. “If you’re hiring it out and these guys charge a lot more for variable rate, you need to figure out what to do. Where do we need to spend the money? Where do I have the most variability in my field? This quickly points you to those areas where variable rate is going to pay off.”

Technology helps put hard numbers to farmers’ observations, empowering them to make better decisions, said AgCenter soil scientist Brenda Tubaña.

Sensors measuring NDVI — or normalized difference vegetation index — are one example. They determine where plants are healthy and vigorously growing and where they are struggling and could use some help.

She showed the audience some pictures of a sugarcane field.

“It’s easy to say the field is not uniform. I see differences in height. I see skipped rows,” she said. “But the eyes don’t tell you an absolute value for us to do more. We can say it’s not uniform, but how not uniform is it?”

Once those numbers are in hand, a human touch is still required to get to the bottom of the problem.

“NDVI monitors plant health, but it doesn’t diagnose the real situation,” Tubaña said. Anything from the weather to soil type and pH could be the reason for crop stress reflected in NDVI.

While precision agriculture can seem like a daunting and nebulous concept, Tubaña summed it up in simple terms.

“Precision agriculture is improving farming systems — improving the productivity, yields and profitability and reducing the environmental footprint,” she said. “It’s based on three things: observing, measuring and responding to variation in space and time.”

Tri Setiyono, an AgCenter precision agriculture specialist, said several undergraduate- and graduate-level courses covering topics from drone operations to remote sensing to mapping and modeling systems are being offered to equip students with in-demand skills in the agricultural job market.

“Our goal at LSU is to help build this workforce,” he said.

Others on the program included Kam Harper, of Macon Ridge Specialty Drone Services, and AgCenter engineer Randy Price, who participated in a panel discussion about drones with Setiyono. Tate Strebeck, of Progressive Tractor and Implement, and Michael Reith, of John Deere Thibodaux, also spoke.

The event, which also featured an industry showcase, was a joint effort with Fletcher Technical Community College. Another precision agriculture summit will take place Friday, Feb. 23, on Fletcher’s campus in Schriever. Information is available at

Man speaking to group of people seated at tables.

Mead Hardwick shows attendees of a Feb. 16, 2024, precision agriculture summit yield data maps that he uses on his family’s farm in Tensas Parish. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

Three men sitting in chairs.

Kam Harper, center, of Macon Ridge Specialty Drone Services, speaks during a panel discussion at a precision agriculture summit held Feb. 16, 2024. Looking on are engineer Randy Price, left, and precision agriculture specialist Tri Setiyono, right, both of the LSU AgCenter. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

Man speaking at a lectern.

Zach Reynolds, of Mississippi State University, shows how data can be used to make maps to help guide farming decisions during a precision agriculture summit Feb. 16, 2024. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

2/22/2024 3:21:28 PM
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