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Technology Plays Crucial Roles in Land Stewardship

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Working at a research organization means we get to use some of the coolest, new technology. It’s a lot of fun!

In all seriousness, though, rapid advancements in technology are allowing us to answer deeper questions about how plants, animals and soils work. In turn, we apply what we learn to figure out ways to keep ranch lands healthier, more productive and profitable.

Raising the Bar in Research

Technology has played a huge role in allowing us to do more, higher quality research.

When I first came to Noble in 2007, Tresa Trammell, now our UAV program coordinator, and I shared the responsibilities of mapmaking. It would take us days to put together one map of a ranch. With today’s technology (we fly a drone that captures pictures of the land from the air), we could put one together in a matter of hours.

When the need arose to plant more small grains research plots, we started looking at sensor technologies. We knew we didn’t have enough personnel to collect all the extra data by hand. So we turned to technology to gather it for us.

We attach sensors to tractors and drones, which we drive or fly across fields, or to stationary objects in fields. Then, at a predetermined time, the sensors collect the information we need, such as forage heights, temperature and moisture levels, and images used to quantify indicators of plant health.

At one time, we could only provide a researcher with data from the field every other day. Now, in some cases, we can provide them the same (or more) information every couple of hours.

April Mueller, research assistant, drives a specially designed tractor called the SpiderApril Mueller, research assistant, drives a specially designed tractor called the “Spider,” over a field of wheat used for evaluation of winter pasture following summer cover crops, on March 22, 2019. The Spider is equipped with sensors that collect data on forage height, biomass and crude protein. This information helps researchers determine performance differences for different varieties across many different research projects at Noble.

Free Up Time to Do What Only You Can Do

While a person might have a difficult time performing the same, monotonous task over and over with the same level of consistency, the sensors (and other technologies) don’t have this problem.

Therefore, not only do we get more information feeding our research projects; we get higher quality information.

The question sometimes raised in conversations about technology is: “Will a machine replace me?” The truth is: Nothing can replace the human’s ability to assess and interpret data. The goal of technology isn’t to replace people but to amplify what they do.

We’re all being asked to do more with less. We want to be good stewards of our resources, which means we have to be efficient.

Technology is a valuable tool in helping us figure out how much of a resource we have or need so that we can make better management decisions. And technology can help free up our time to do what only we can (and want to) do. For us, that means furthering our ability to provide solutions to agricultural challenges.

Here’s What We’re Measuring

Today our ag tech team is helping agricultural researchers measure:

  • Soil moisture and temperature.
  • Plant height (used to predict forage yield).
  • Crude protein.
  • Water quantity in ponds.
  • Plant diseases and invasive species encroachment in pastures.

Much of our technology work is geared toward supporting Noble’s research, whether it’s breeding better forage varieties or understanding plant biology and broader ecosystem functions.

However, advancing technology, in turn, allows our consultants and researchers to ask bigger questions — like “How do we measure soil health?” — and make better recommendations to farmers and ranchers.

We’re also always thinking about how these technologies could be used on any producer’s ranch. Technology is expensive to adopt, and producers need to make sure it will provide value to them before they decide to buy. We’re able to take on some of their risk by evaluating these tools on our ranches.

Dillon Payne shows Nicole Sederstrom how unmanned aerial vehicles can be used in agricultural researchDillon Payne shows Nicole Sederstrom, a Lloyd Noble Scholar in Agriculture, how unmanned aerial vehicles can be used in agricultural research, on June 28, 2018. The trio, which includes Tresa Trammell (background), used the drone to photograph a no-till cover crop plot of sunflowers for the research of Jim Johnson, soils and crops consultant.

Future of Tech on the Ranch

Right now, technology is allowing us to gather incredible amounts of information. The key is figuring out how to use that information.

My vision is that someday ranchers will be able to use an electronic tablet to pull up the current weather as well as the week’s forecast and all their area’s historical weather data. Before breakfast, they’ll receive an update on that day’s crop health estimates, animal inventory, forage quality predictions and number of grazing days. And, not only will they be flying drones. They’ll be able to easily use the data their drone collects to deploy tools that get the job done.

It seems like a pie-in-the-sky dream right now, but it’s not so far-fetched. All of the pieces of technology are out there. They just haven’t been connected in a way that’s cost effective — yet.

However, more and more bright minds are joining the cause. Soon, not even the sky will be the limits.

Dillon Payne
Program Officer