High-tech on the Farm
Georgia’s agriculture industry benefits from the latest advancements
Rolling robots in chicken houses. Smart irrigation apps. Drones assessing crop health. Fitbits for dairy cows. The state’s farmers and agribusinesses are embracing technology, putting them on the leading edge of innovation in the agriculture industry.
“When we talk about agriculture in Georgia currently, we say it’s more than sows and plows,” says Chris Chammoun, director of the Center of Innovation for Agribusiness at the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD). “They [farmers] are highly integrated with technology across all size farms.”
Allen Moore, associate dean for research at the University of Georgia (UGA) College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), agrees. “We’re going from well-tried methods to being able to utilize all the information of the past and present, which is available to us at once,” he says. “It’s called big data, and it’s allowing farmers to make decisions and do things more precisely. Precision agriculture and the decision-making behind that is going to be completely changed because of technology.”
Using technology for precision agriculture has a number of benefits, including reducing farmers’ costs and increasing yields. High-tech applications like GPS also allow farmers to be more efficient and better managers of their fields. In addition, Chammoun says increased automation has taken away much of the risk and allowed agriculture practices, such as pesticide use, to be much safer. And, technology has led to more sustainable practices, including reducing water usage and the ability to apply the right amount of irrigation for maximum yield. “More crop per drop,” he describes it.
On McLendon Acres, a 9,000-acre family farm near Leary in Southwest Georgia, father and son Marty and Adam McLendon grow cotton, peanuts and corn, and they’re also heavily involved in technology research with UGA as well as agricultural product and service companies. Each year, the McLendons designate some of their acreage to research that will benefit them and farmers in general.
For the past few years, they’ve been involved in testing variable rate irrigation (VRI) systems that allow them to control water application based on soil types and suitability for crop growth. The research has ranged from a simple system that allowed them to build a map of their fields and turn off irrigation in non-crop areas, to the more sophisticated dynamic VRI, which constantly tailors the amount of water dispersed in each zone of the field based on data from sensors.
George Vellidis, CAES professor in the Crop and Soil Sciences Department on UGA’s Tifton campus, explains how dynamic VRI works. “We’ve developed a suite of tools, including smart soil moisture sensors. They send information wirelessly to the web, where there are decision support tools that make recommendations to farmers about how much water to apply [to a specific area],” he says. “That information can go to irrigation machines called center pivots. We developed technology that mounts on the pivots and allows each one of the sprinklers to put on a different amount of water [depending on the soil moisture]. As it goes across the field, the pivot in real time changes the amount of water to meet the crop’s needs.”
Adam McLendon says this is his farm’s first year using dynamic VRI on more than just one research pivot. “We’re using it on 30 pivots now and are consistently adding more,” he says. One reason is having one easy-to-use software platform that allows him to control the pivots from his cell phone. “The app allows me to start, stop and change speeds from my phone, which is just phenomenal.”
The moisture-detecting sensors read at variable depths in the ground depending on the crop, and fields that have multiple soil types might require more sensors than a field with one soil type. “In a research project, we’ll typically place about one sensor for about 10 acres,” he says. “They’ll tell you when is the best time to put out water to most effectively use it.”
McLendon says dynamic VRI has a lot of potential for water savings. “Water is the way we make our living, and we don’t want to waste a drop of it,” he says. “We’re always conscious of our crop needs.”
Dynamic VRI prevents potential crop loss because it allows farmers to apply water in the scientific, proven timeframe for each crop to best use it. “It takes some of the guesswork out of irrigation by putting water out before a crop is stressed,” he says. “It’s nice preventative maintenance.”
McLendon has also worked on pilot research projects involving unmanned, fixed-wing aircraft and infrared satellite technology to monitor his far-flung fields. Given the expense of purchasing these types of drones, which can cost well over $25,000 each, he’s not sure about return on investment. “If it catches a problem 10 days ahead of time, it’s a huge benefit,” he says. “It will definitely be more prevalent in the future.”
Austin Warbington of Warbington Farms near Vienna has found a more economical way to monitor his corn, cotton and peanut fields from the air. He’s using three DJI Mavic Pro quadcopter drones – ones that are propelled by four rotors and run on batteries – as opposed to the gas-powered fixed-wing version. “You can buy 20 of what I have for the price of one [of those],” says Warbington.
His drones give him the ability to get a bird’s-eye view of his fields, which is especially important with corn because once it grows tall, he can see only the edges of the crop during an in-person inspection. “When you can get up above, you can see the different colors of the crop and you can get a sense of what might be wrong before you walk out there,” he says. “You can see hog damage in the corn that you don’t know you have. Say they take out two to three acres. If you can save an acre, that pays for your drone.”
Warbington’s drone is connected wirelessly to his iPad, allowing him to view and save photos of his fields. He says he’s flown his drones three miles away and still received photos with no problems. He also wears drone-compatible goggles to complement the tablet, giving him a first-person, real-time view. “It looks like I’m up there flying the drone,” he explains. “It’s pretty neat.”
For him, the drones are a good, user-friendly and cost-effective solution for viewing a lot of acreage. “You can see a lot more with the drone,” he says. “It can fly right down to the plant or up to about 400 feet. It’s a tool I use a lot more than I ever thought I would.”
“Fitbits” for Cows
Technology that monitors for real and potential problems is also being applied to farm animals. At Seven Oaks Dairy near Waynesboro, owner Richard Watson has been piloting an artificial intelligence (AI) system on 200 of his cows to detect things like lameness, digestive disorders and readiness for breeding. The system, called Ida (Intelligent Dairy Farmer’s Assistant), tracks the cows’ movements via collars, much like Fitbits track humans’ activities. By gathering data on his animals and incorporating it with massive amounts of information previously collected at other farms, the AI can predict health issues before they become too problematic.
Watson’s operation is a different type of deployment for the Ida technology. On his farm, cattle freely graze in large pastures 365 days a year. “Until now, the major application of the Ida system has been on conventional or stalled cattle,” he explains. “We want to make sure it’s working well from our perspective, and Connecterra [the Dutch developers] are learning on our style of dairy farm.
“We are constantly looking for ways to not just improve productivity, but also the health of our animals,” he says. “We’ve got large numbers of animals that are out of doors and that are impossible to monitor physically in real time. If we can enhance productivity and the health of the herd by 5 to 10 percent, it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in improvement.”
The cows’ collars are actually sensors that transmit real-time data via Wi-Fi to base stations mounted on the farm’s buildings. According to Connecterra, Ida delivers key information with high accuracy on conditions such as estrus (best time for insemination), mastitis, lameness, digestive disorders, heat stress and calving.
“The system is cloud-based,” Watson says. “So if I’m in Hong Kong, I could look at the app on my phone and see what my cows are doing in real time, which is pretty cool.” He says the system has been accurate in predicting which cows were in heat because he verified with traditional methods. In addition, Ida has picked up lameness early.
“One of the big problems in cows that are outdoors and moving around is lameness,” he says. “If they are hurt, it can have a big impact on their ability to feed and will in turn impact production. Often, it’s difficult to pick out a lame animal until it gets so bad that she’s limping and walking behind the herd. At that point, the chances of getting her back in health in a short period of time are diminished.”
He feels the Ida system makes sense and has a greater return on investment for bigger dairies where it’s harder to keep an eye on large herds. If he continues to be impressed with Ida’s results, he will scale the technology to his herd of more than 2,000.
However, he cautions, “No technology is a substitute for good farming practices, and this doesn’t replace the farmer’s ability to diagnose problems or take care of his animals. It’s merely an aid to help prevent potential problems.”
With Georgia being a national leader in poultry production, the health and welfare of thousands of birds are important considerations. This was the underlying premise for a UGA-Georgia Tech partnership intended to solve problems facing the state’s poultry industry. During the past three years, the collaboration has yielded a mobile, autonomous robot that can safely interact with chickens in their commercial houses while monitoring daily movements and conditions.
“We started the project to do an animal welfare check,” says Gary McMurray, Food Processing Technology division chief at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. “Everyone wants the birds to be healthy, but one of the top vectors for avian influenza is people going into houses to check on the birds – it’s a biosecurity risk. We wondered if we could develop robots to serve the same function as people.”
From that basic premise, the researchers have discovered that chickens are not bothered by a four-wheeled, low-profile robot that has been increasingly refined to perform specific tasks, such as collecting video and audio data within the poultry houses that can gauge the birds’ health and lead to early disease detection. It can estimate the birds’ size and weight and look for lethargic birds while monitoring temperature, humidity and ammonia levels at the ground level where these factors have the biggest impact on the birds. As it rolls through their house, the robot gently nudges the birds, causing most to stand up and get out of its way, which helps increase their daily movement. Finally, with the attachment of a robotic arm, the robot can pick up eggs laid on the ground and store them in a basket, reducing the need for humans to touch them.
“We’re doing extensive tests at UGA and in some commercial houses, and we’ll continue to refine the algorithms and data to show the value of this technology,” McMurray says. “We’re very excited about the commercial interest we’ve received.” The best estimate for real-world deployment of the chicken robot is one to two years.
These technology examples, along with others such as self-steering tractors, automatic milking machines and mechanized cotton harvesters, are helping to increase productivity and efficiency in Georgia agriculture while providing fertile ground for entrepreneurs who will refine and commercialize them.
McLendon paints a vivid picture of today’s farmer. “I had a conference call as I was checking on a pivot on my iPad, literally in the middle of nowhere. I was watching the sun rise over a freshly planted cornfield using some of the most advanced technology in the agriculture world and handling business at the same time. It doesn’t get much better than that.”