ROCKVILLE, Ind. (AP) — For much of his professional life, Steve Gerrish worked to determine which plant-breeding techniques and which genetic markers would yield the greatest harvest for farmers like himself.
It was a selfish endeavor, he admits, wanting little more for his 600-acre farm in Parke County than the bushels per acre to improve from the year before.
“I spent more than five decades measuring genetics and comparing it with fertility and then measuring the results at harvest,” Gerrish said. “But I wasn’t paying attention to what was happening as it grew. I just figured if 200 pounds of nitrogen got me 200 bushel yield then 250 pounds should get me 250 bushels.
“And that’s how we’ve all been doing it for years. It’s just been a lot of trial and error. But sometimes 250 pounds would only yield a 230 bushel. Well, what happened to that other 20 pounds of nitro? It ended up in the Gulf of Mexico, and I don’t want to do that anymore.”
And so he’s decided not to as he looks ahead to what type of farm he wants to leave his children and grandchildren.
In short, Gerrish said he’s realized it’s time for those in agriculture to work smarter, not harder.
So a few years back, Gerrish set out to determine what farmers could do, or more specifically what they could use, to maximize their resources. But before he could nail down a solution, he had to find what universal problem there was to solve.
“What is preventing me from maximizing yields out there right now?” Gerrish asked himself. “Is it fertility? Is it bugs in the soil eating my plant roots? I realized I didn’t know and had no way to know until after the season was over. That was a problem.”
And while farmers often send soil samples off at the end of the season to determine nutrient values and discover unseen organisms that may inhibit growth, that does little to understand what to do the next spring, Gerrish said.
So he took a cue from the evolution of human health care and started looking for point of production intervention methods that farmers could employ throughout the season instead of relying on postmortem analysis.
“Modern medicine can look for bio-markers in your blood and identify things that could cause cancer before they ever become a problem,” Gerrish said. “And it’s been a progression, from only understanding what made you die, to what’s causing you to die, to now where they can predict what could cause you to die and how to prevent it.
“From an agriculture standpoint we need to do the same thing. What things do we need to do and what tools do we need to impart change during the growing season and prevent plant loss?”
Gerrish believes he has the tool part figured out, it’s the implementation that still needs some research and development, he said.
Using a FLIR Griffin G510 portable gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer, Gerrish says farmers can begin understanding field dynamics at a deeper level by helping identify which nutrients — specifically nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — are in the field at any time.
“If I can go out and measure those right now, knowing what I put on the field and knowing what the typical pond load is, I can tell if I screwed up or not by what’s coming off in my tile water,” Gerrish said. “So, being able to constantly measure my tile load, I can determine if I need to pump that water back into the fields based on the nutrient contents the mass spectrometer tells me is coming off.”
But understanding and monitoring plant nutrition is half the battle, Gerrish said. Preventing organisms from eating away at a farmer’s profits is the other.
Using the QMIRA Parascan, Gerrish believes farmers can begin attacking one of the most economically damaging parasites in the world, the Root Knot nematode. The nematode is responsible for anywhere between 8 to 15 percent crop loss in soybeans annually, Gerrish said.
With the Parascan, developed by Gerrish’s company QMIRA, farmers would be able to determine if the parasite is present and give a detailed report on how to deal with the pests before harvest.
But as effective as Gerrish believes these tools could be for a farmer, he sees them as just a part of his grand solution: agBOTs.
Gerrish founded the agBOT Challenge in 2016 as a way to challenge top robotics teams around the country to think about robotics in agriculture and the role they could play in the future.
Each year teams are tasked with incorporating different technologies, like the mass spectrometer and Parascan, to improve observation, intervention, analytics and data storage in agriculture work methods.
And while integrating new technologies with autonomous robots is the short-term goal, Gerrish sees a future where autonomous vehicles can perform many farm tasks with little more than a farmer’s input.
“Farmers, we don’t need more … to do,” Gerrish said. “What I want to see is a future where the technologies my companies are developing is used on an agBOT and does whatever tasks it’s assigned to do; whether that’s fertilizing a row of beans or identifying a weed with machine vision and eliminating it.
“This could be revolutionary to have these tools in the hands of farmers so they can do this. It’s in our best interest to pursue these technologies so that we’re equipped to feed a growing world population.”
Information from: Tribune-Star, http://www.tribstar.com
— Alex Modesitt, Tribune-Star via The Associated Press
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