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Precision Agriculture: Boots & Technology Still Needed on the Ground

Earlier this year, NASA jumped into – get this – the precision agriculture game when it launched a soil moisture monitoring satellite out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The satellite, otherwise known as Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP), was initially launched to track moisture in the Earth’s soil to help scientists forecast and track extreme weather events such as flood, droughts and landslides.

But the mission is also being billed by NASA as a way to help farmers get a better understanding of soil moisture, plan their growing season and make irrigation decisions using SMAP’s data “day to day and long term.”

Unfortunately, that space data from SMAP isn’t “the best way to monitor soil” for growers and irrigators on the ground in-season because of resolution issues and the fact that satellites pass around the Earth every three or more days.

Anyone who’s farmed knows three days is an eternity when it comes to crop stress (think hail storms, frost, mites, ill-timed fertilizer applications, irrigation system breakdowns, or unexpected dry spells), and that lag time to not only span the globe but process and deliver the data can make or break a crop. (Consider it takes days and even weeks to render some satellite-provided data in the industry as it stands today.)

Then there’s the issue of resolution, and how much acreage and soil depth satellite data can accurately record from space. In some trees such as pistachios and walnuts, the roots reach depths of 5-plus feet and are pulling water from multiple soil types block by block. SMAP’s data only records moisture to 2 inches, and some other satellite technologies only go as far as to take readings from the canopy – which often times reads crop stress only after a stress event has occurred – in other words, when it’s too late for farmers to react.

The readings also only drill down to a 6-mile resolution, which isn’t beneficial to growers with multiple soil types and slopes within smaller irrigation blocks.

“SMAP uses two microwave instruments to monitor the top 2 inches (5 centimeters) of soil on Earth’s surface,” notes Rosalie Murphy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Together, the instruments create soil moisture estimates with a resolution of about 6 miles (9 kilometers), mapping the entire globe every two or three days. Although this resolution cannot show how soil moisture might vary within a single field, it will give the most detailed maps yet made.”

All of which stresses the importance of having boots and real-time data technologies on the ground.

Along with a shortage of workers in some agricultural regions such as California, there’s also a shortage of trusted, real-time data technology being adopted at a widespread scale on our farms.

There are plenty of precision ag tools flooding the market, but are they truly real time? Are they calibrated to the soil type to produce accurate data? Can the systems withstand the rigors of extreme weather and daily agricultural practices?

While all of us in agriculture can agree, “the more you know, the better you can plan” for the season, it’s clear that – even during today’s technology age – in-field tools are needed more than ever to calibrate and deliver useful precision data if growers are going to succeed in season.

Tools that help growers read crop stress points and soil moisture at the time of the reading give farmers a huge leg up over previous generations. Take that precision to another level and offer up crop stress data before it becomes visible in the crop using soil moisture probes such as Hortau’s real-time irrigation management stations, and that’s something today’s growers can benefit from right now in the midst of rising water costs, drought and declining water reserves.

Hortau’s “smart” irrigation management system helps growers monitor plant stress and water use in real time.

While the agriculture industry is making great strides to adopt new technologies and grow more crop per drop without the environmental impact, precision agriculture technologies have to continue making strides to deliver real-time data and on-farm systems that help growers anticipate crop stress events on a minute-by-minute basis rather than a week-by-week basis.

And then we still have to ensure that data is digestible, mobile and easy-to-use for growers to adopt and encourage their staff in the field to use.

Otherwise, we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot – or in this case, shooting rockets into outer space.

(Source – http://www.globalaginvesting.com/news/blogdetail?contentid=5407)

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