The Status of Digital Ag

Thursday, October 1, 2020  •  Episode 1

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To lay the foundation for future episodes of the FarmBits podcast, Dr. Joe Luck and Laura Thompson join us for a conversation that covers the current state of digital agriculture. Topics such as the importance of digital agriculture to modern farming, the current adoption status for a multitude of digital ag technologies, and how growers can best make decisions regarding digital ag adoption are addressed. The episode concludes with Joe and Laura talking about where digital ag is heading in the imminent future.

Opinions expressed on FarmBits are solely those of the guest(s) or host(s) and not the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

On this episode

host Samantha Teten
host Jackson Stansell
guest Laura Thompson
guest Joe Luck
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Jackson: Welcome to the FarmBits podcast, a product of Nebraska Extension Digital Agriculture. I'm Jackson Stansell.

Samantha: And I'm Samantha Teten,

Jackson: And we come to you each week to discuss the trends, the realities, and the value of digital agriculture.

Samantha: Through interviews and panels with experts, producers, and innovators from all sectors of digital technology. We hope that you step away from each episode with new practical knowledge of digital agriculture technology.

Samantha: Welcome to the official first episode of the FarmBits podcast! We hope you took a few minutes to listen to our introductory episode to learn a little bit more about your hosts and what this podcast is all about.

Jackson: For this episode, we are going to provide an orientation to digital agriculture, and we are joined by Laura Thompson and Dr. Joe Luck, members of the digital ag team at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. During this episode, Laura and Joe share insights about why digital ag is important in the modern ag landscape, how producers can best make technology adoption decisions for their operation, where adoption of digital ag currently stands, and what is important for growers to consider when trying to get involved in digital agriculture.

Samantha: We think this episode is a great foundational episode for what's to come through this podcast, and we are excited for you to hear what Joe and Laura have to say. So, without further ado, let's get to the interview. I'd like to introduce Laura Thompson, who we are excited to have joining us today. Laura Thompson is the co-coordinator of the Nebraska On-farm Research Network and is an avid ag techie. She grew up in southeast Nebraska where she now resides and farms with her husband, Nate. Together they also collect drone imagery for agricultural and videography purposes, as well as work with ag data privately. Laura graduated from the University of Nebraska - Lincoln with a master's degree in agronomy in 2014. During her master's studies, her research focused on comparing sensors and models for in-season nitrogen recommendations. She has continued those interests in her career with a particular interest in implementing drone technologies for in-season nutrient management.

Jackson: We are very excited to have Laura on the show today as well as Dr. Joe Luck, who is an associate professor in the Biological Systems Engineering Department at UNL. He grew up in Western Kentucky and graduated in 2012 with a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky in Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. In his graduate studies, his research primarily focused on spray application systems evaluation, optimization, and testing. His current research interests span a wide range from yield data quality and analysis to variable rate application technologies. One of his primary focuses is extension work and he takes great pride in having the opportunity to work with growers in the state of Nebraska. Since Joe has come to the University of Nebraska, he has married his wife, Lena, with whom he has a one-year-old and three-year-old daughter. And as if his hands weren't already full enough with two young daughters, he also has his work cut out for him in managing his many graduate students like the two of us. So welcome Joe and Laura we're very glad to have you all on today. Thanks! Thank you! 

Samantha: So, we'll go ahead and get started. The first question: can you tell us a little bit about your role and how digital agriculture plays a part in like your daily careers?

Laura: Yeah, well thanks, it's fun to be here and get to kind of see everyone and get this this project started. So, I use digital agriculture I would say pretty much on a daily basis in my role. So, as you mentioned, I co-coordinate the On-farm Research Network and through that program we work with farmers across the state to help them do research on their farm to address issues that are important to them. So different practices or different products that they may want to try. Along with that there's a huge opportunity to really leverage the ag technologies or digital agriculture technologies they already have in place on their farms, as well as to try out, you know, new technologies that they might be interested in. So, we were just talking before we started about some downforce studies. People might be interested in looking at things like active downforce, different sensor technologies, imagery, how they can utilize things like satellite imagery or drone imagery, so looking at a lot of new technologies that they might be interested in, as well as just evaluating general products and practices, like

seeding rates, or it could be different varieties, and how they can use those technologies like yield monitoring and variable rate applications and things like that to really carry out those studies on their farm. So yeah, I'd say I use it pretty much on a daily basis and working with these different settings with farmers.

Joe: Yeah, so to me digital agriculture is really what I would consider data driven agriculture. So, it's kind of the next evolution from precision ag, where we have a lot of what I call plug and play technologies, and then you know when we started doing soil sampling for variable rate nutrient management, that to me is kind of this one of the starts of where we're actually using data driven, because then we take that data, we apply algorithms or equations to it, and we generate you know an output in terms of an application. So today, you know, farmers have, almost all farmers have, some access to a data-driven type of application and so for me, much like what Laura said, I'm lucky to be involved in a lot of on-farm research studies where we're looking at some things like seeding rates, nitrogen rates, just showing growers how to use their variable rate systems, collect the data, and analyze the data properly so we can give them a good solution or improve their knowledge in a where we have confidence in that. So, on the extension side, I think that's really one of the primary focuses we have, is educating people how to do that better. And then on the research side, you know some of the projects where we're you know we're obviously working with a lot of sensor-based nitrogen management. Jackson and Sam both are working on projects in that area where it's a little bit on the cutting edge of research I think, but we also have an extension opportunity for that. And then some of the other work that we do where we're developing you know a new spray application system that'll actually compensate in the field for changing environmental conditions you know that's obviously a data-driven process and so yeah to me we've got a lot of efforts in this area. And you know it's everything we focus on and each of our projects is all about data-driven applications so.

Samantha: They're very interesting projects.

Jackson: Absolutely, and in a very wide variety like you mentioned a few times. And I guess both of you already kind of spoke to this, as far as the extension opportunities that you have with digital agriculture and how what we're doing with digital ag is impacting growers in a very real- world scenario, but why do you think people in the agriculture industry at large should care about digital agriculture? And kind of want to invest in that space a little bit more and or you know turn more of their focus to using digital ag in their operations?

Laura: Yeah, I think you know some of the things we kind of talked about that there's a lot of opportunity to impact your productivity, your profitability, resource management have some opportunity to improve things like that. Also, though I just say you know, and this is something that we've talked about extensively, but um really the future of our agriculture industry is digital agriculture. You know that's just the trend and the way that the system is going, and so I think you know there's benefit to getting involved, getting some familiarity starting to see which technologies are going to fit in your operation, how those might benefit you. know which ones are going to be the right ones to adopt um for your particular setting. So, you know there's a lot of opportunity of course with different technologies. You know, really, I think it comes down to trying to make, just like Joe previously said, just trying to use data to make better decisions. And really, kind of, that's the bottom line, is how we can use that that data to drive our decisions, to make more data-informed decisions, and really to ultimately have more sustainability, more resource stewardship or management, and more productivity and profitability. So that's kind of my thoughts there.

Joe: It's yeah, there's not much too much to add because Laura did a great job of covering that, but with the way I look is with the future of digital ag is there's two things: We have a lot of farmers that are kind of DIY'ers, they like to do it themselves. As farmers, I grew up on a family farm and I hope that small family farms continue but, we just see those disappearing more and more, we're seeing larger farms you know what a lot of people might consider corporate farms. But as farmers have to increase land, you know acquisitions and renting to stay competitive, you see these bigger and bigger farms; we can't manage those farms like we used to with the, you know, notebook in my front pocket kind of a thing, it's just too much information. You know logistics, things like that, so having data not just on the agronomic side but thinking about logistics, moving people and equipment around, all these things - quality control checks you know - we have to have data to do that efficiently. It just it's going to be too hard to do that with pen and pencil anymore. Then the other side of it is more from, and so that's kind of the on the farm side, but at the industry side we see more data connectivity between industries. So, your down the line people, the ones that are providing nutrients, the ones that are buying the product, they want digital records of what's been going on, they want in some cases to control what's going in, see corn companies would be a good example of that. Some of the bigger companies that are you know purchasing product for processing later, so there's going to be a big push, well there already is a big push from industry, to ask for this digital record of what's going on the farm. So, I think just alone those two aspects of where we're at, where we're going, are going to drive pretty much everybody to be using some form of digital system. So that's uh that's kind of the way I look at what's pushing this forward even further than just the agronomics of being able to maybe operate a little bit more profitably and so forth. 

Jackson: Sure, and so with that current state of affairs and what we're seeing, where are we exactly with adoption? I mean I know this is something that we talk about a lot and I think you know something we work with regularly, but do you have any perspective to offer in terms of where we are on farms and in industry in terms of ag technology value and adoption at that scale?

Joe: That's, adoption has been a a big question lately and how and why people adopt, and yeah we've had some students working through ag economics that have done some surveys and you know the, I guess what I would say is we've seen a lot of what I consider plug and play technology. So, your auto steer, your auto section control, those are starting to get to a very high level of adoption. I mean it's the equipment's, just it's there, it's just an activation to make that happen there. You don't have to have any data analysis, so it's again that's more of the traditional precision ag type stuff. But as you see as we move towards more of the data-driven piece, that's where you have kind of the next level down, so I would put a lot of the plug and play stuff up in the 60% plus I think. 30 to 60 percent, you see a lot of the people doing variable rate nutrient management, trying to do variable rate seeding, you know a lot of people in Nebraska, dry land pivot corners versus the pivot that's variable rate seeding so that you know it's not just varying the rate within the field at different rates. And then some of the newer technologies you know that you have the sensor-based management that we're talking about, crop models - I would put those in the lowest tier, so probably less than obviously less than 30 percent. And you know there's a lot of potential there, you know one of the things just from the engineering side, what automation does is it takes a lot of the variability of kind of measurement and prescriptive issues out of it, so you're very consistent with the data you're collecting, um you know it could be really bad, it could be perfect, but in other words you're just very consistent with the data collection piece. So, figuring out how to use that through the models and algorithms, all that data, that's the big missing piece right now. But um that's kind of how I see a lot of that. That survey information coming back is plug and play is way up on the adoption curve, you have kind of the middle piece where people are still trying to figure out "Is variable rate really paying for itself?" and that's back to Laura's point about on-farm research. I think we still see a lot of people not providing the best data from those as they can. It's just basic study layout, statistical analysis, things like that need to be deployed fully. And then we have that lowest part of the adoption curve, which really the state-of-the-art kind of stuff that we're working with today and in terms of sensing and algorithms and models. So that's, I think that's kind of where we're at right now.

Laura: Yeah I would agree, and I think that last category that you kind of mentioned, the I guess the cutting edge or where we're not seeing quite as high of adoption yet I think one reason that's kind of exciting though is that it gets to one of the questions we hear a lot which is, "I've got all this data collected, I've got you know all these I've got weather stations, I've got sensors out, I've got all this yield monitor data, I've got EC data, you know I've collected all this, how am I going to really get value from this? How is this going to start driving some of the decisions and start making for better management? You know how are we really using this?" And I think some of those technologies that you mentioned there at the end that were we're still kind of on the cutting edge, or getting going with those, are going to really help answer that question or provide that opportunity to leverage some of that data that's just being kind of stored and collected at this point. So, you know we've been seeing more companies that are starting to do some of those, automate some of those processes to get that data processed and analyzed, an intuitive decision, starting to make some decisions or management prescriptions off of that data. But I think at this point we're looking more at the validation of those, and so that's where with on-farm research we're doing testing with crop canopy sensors, or models, or different tools that are trying to make decisions out of all this data that we're collecting, and really starting to take a look at those, and validating those, and refining those, and kind of starting to move in that direction. So I think that's kind of exciting, of course that's kind of the area that we're working in and we're you know interested and engaged in in this group.

Samantha: Absolutely, so you both kind of hit on like where we're at currently in 2020, and then also kind of where we're going, but where do you really think the technology in the next 10 years, what areas do you think will have like the most traction or the most growth in this next decade? Got your crystal ball?

Joe: Yeah well it's tough to say because um you see so much. The more people that are out there, they get their hands on the data, and get to work with it, the more innovation we see. So, you really never know. But I mean to me there's been so much effort in artificial intelligence and machine learning to try and help, you know, drive some of these decisions that that are being made. So that's what AI is all about, it's making you know taking what we do or what a farmer does and you know creating that background logic and algorithm to make the decision that they would make. And we've seen industry focus so much on that and this is you know, this is where the companies like you know Bayer and Corteva, they're working with the cutting edge companies - IBM, Microsoft - to try and deploy that in agriculture. And so, I think you know just reading some of what's happened in the past, you know there's been a lot of spectacular failures in that area because people didn't understand ag data. And of course, we're dealing with natural environments where things don't always go like we want them to, but to me that's something we're going to see a lot more behind the scenes if not right out where the farmers can use it probably toward the end of the next decade. We're going to see a lot of that that's actually taking place and you know somewhere within that decision system that's being applied now, that's going to be something I think is kind of neat to look forward to.

Samantha: You talked a lot about these big companies what do you think about like smaller companies and innovating. How are they going to like fit into that realm, as well?

Joe: Yeah, there's a huge opportunity there because I think some of the biggest innovations, we're seeing are coming from some of the smaller startup companies. We have people with just an extreme focus, if they just focus on one aspect - and it could be logistics you know. Laura and I had the chance to visit with a startup company yesterday that's you know merging sensing data with uh model crop modeling to try and you know generate prescriptions, which we've all known that's the future of that you know merging modeling with in-season sensor data, and so that's going to be something right out there farmers can use. What typically happens is when you have a small company like that that comes up with something really innovative and it works, you see them all of a sudden they're just purchased or you know they're brought into a bigger company because the bigger companies that see that as part of their mission or you know what they want to do. They want that ability to make that type of, you know, decision or have that capacity in their own system. So yeah, I think there's huge opportunities for students and that's you know we have the new entrepreneurship program here in UNL and that's what that's all about, it's people that are willing to you know put some time into things, focus on something, and come up with something that works in that specific area. And it could span, there's so much to do in ag, it could be it's not just crop sensing there's you know logistics, and machine management, all these different areas that somebody could with the right interest and skill set, could innovate into.

Laura: So yeah, I agree, and I think to me it just kind of is interesting what kind of careers the students of you know today and that are coming in in the next few years what kind of careers that they're going to have as opportunities. And I think kind of what you described there kind of points to a whole new direction that's getting started where we're combining things like agronomy and data science together, and the skill set that the students are going to need are quite different to really be successful in leveraging all that data. But also having some understanding of how that needs to fit and interpret, having some good agronomic understanding or real-world kind of setting understanding. So just to me when we talk about what's coming next, I just think of course we're here you know on a campus and schools getting started, so I'm thinking of what what kind of careers and next steps these students are going to have to really prepare for those, the growth and direction that's going to be taking place in the next few years.

Samantha: Exactly what you're saying, that's really exciting for us like as students to kind of see also, when we're looking at jobs, and where we're going, so. 

Laura: Yeah, it's kind of amazing. It's hard to envision that, you know, some of the careers that you'll be moving into it didn't really exist not too long ago, so.

Jackson: It's really, really interesting. I think both of you touched on this in different ways, both about the careers and then also sensors and crop modeling coming together, it seems like a big theme is integration and trying to bring together a lot of these cross-disciplinary aspects of agriculture to create better solutions. So, I look forward to what we're going to see in that area, you know, over the next 10 years. But before we go, I know we've held y'all for a little while here, what is one piece of advice or imperative information that you want our listeners to know about digital ag or how they could use digital ag? Just some piece of advice that you'd like to offer?

Laura: You know I think one thing that comes to mind is just how much is changing, and how many new opportunities there are, and it can be challenging to keep up with all of that, and what's being offered and what might be you know things that are going to actually be brought into your operation or not. So, I guess my thought is, I'm just really excited that you guys are getting started with this podcast. I've seen some of the schedule for the different topics and sessions that you're going to have going forward and I think there's going to be a ton of great information that's going to be really helpful for people getting some good overviews of the state of things, see some of the stuff that's coming kind of that cutting edge, and just to kind of help keep up and provide some good, really solid information about what's going on. So, I'm really excited for people to be able to have this resource that you guys are working on here to keep up with all the information and the changes that are coming.

Joe: Yeah, I think the farmers today are approached with so many different tools, products, all these different things. You know, "Give us your data and we'll promise you this." And to me just spending some time to get more educated on you know, what's this mean, what's it going to do for me, you know what does it mean to share my data with you, making sure that you know people are maintaining access - full access - to their data, those are some of the things that I think about. And again, learning about what a good research trial looks like, and how to interpret that data. Again, a lot of companies will come to people and say, "Well here's the results of our trial!" But, you know, how was the trial designed? Implemented? Things like that, I think it's just getting yourself more knowledge about some of these different things. And of course, as it always comes down to, don't try and do everything. You can't jump both feet in on all the tools and technologies, you have to kind of take things step by step, and you know how to how do you identify which one you start with? Well, there's lots of different ways. It could be an opportunity comes up, it could be hey I spend most of my day with this, let me look for a solution to help me cut time back on that. Or I'm paying so much money for this, I want to cut back on you know that, so those are some of the things that I think about, that you know farmers in today's world really need to be considering as they are approached with these different opportunities. And having something like this where you know you have a podcast where people are going to hear about a lot of different topics, and you know we're going to have a new digital ag website where people can go, I think you know having that access that y'all are working on is really great.

Samantha: We hope that you enjoyed that interview with Joe and Laura as much as we did! They did an excellent job of introducing the topic of digital agriculture and offered some insightful perspectives on where digital agriculture currently is, and where it might go in the future. It was great to hear the specifics on what technologies are currently being used by growers such as those plug-and-play technologies that are highly adopted.

Jackson: Absolutely, yeah and I thought that both Joe and Laura were really on target in their discussion about how farmers can best approach ag technology adoption for their operation through on-farm research and small-scale implementation. We look forward to you joining us for next week's episode as we discuss yield mapping and harvest logistics to begin a series on digital agriculture's role in harvest operations and measuring productivity.

Samantha: Thank you for taking the time to join us today on the FarmBits podcast!

Jackson: We would like to thank Nebraska Extension for their support of this podcast, and their commitment to providing high quality informational material to members of the agricultural community in Nebraska and beyond.

Samantha: If you enjoyed this episode, and it sounds like something you'd listen to each week, subscribe to the podcast and set your notifications to let you know each time we release a podcast.

Jackson: We would love to hear from you with your feedback, so if you have comments or questions for us please reach out to us over email at, on twitter @NEDigitalAg, or in the reviews section of your favorite podcast platform.

Samantha: See you next week on another episode of FarmBits!

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