Nowadays, farmers have more access than ever to all kinds of data on their crops, thanks to the rapid development of sensor and telemetry technologies over the past decades. Yet the adoption rate of sensors for agricultural operations is still low, possibly due to cost, ease of adaptation to sensor-based management, ROI issues, and other reasons. .
Agricultural machinery is usually equipped with sensors to monitor planting, harvesting, and other field operations. Perhaps the most commonly used sensors for monitoring plants in fields are soil-water sensors, temperature and relative humidity (RH) sensors, and weather stations. Many commercial companies provide visual platforms that allow users to see real-time data from their sensors. Users (growers or crop consultants) must judge and interpret readings from one or more sensors, as well as the characteristics of that field, to make day-to-day decisions.
Trading platforms are generally general – designed for use in many fields in different climatic regions. But sensor readings and their meanings can vary across crops, with different soil types, climate, tillage, irrigation equipment, etc. To get the most out of sensor-based crop management, it is essential to learn and recognize these differences to ensure quality sensor readings.
Beginning in late 2019, the Digital Agriculture and Irrigation Lab at the University of Nebraska Research and Extension Center began building a research and extension platform named the Panhandle Learning Agricultural Network. PLAN aims to use sensors, low cost telemetry such as the Internet of Things (IoT), localized algorithms and an interactive display and data processing interface to better serve the farming community of the Nebraska Panhandle.
The objectives of PLAN are 1) to increase the adoption rate of sensor-based crop management; 2) create a learning network comprising different fields with different cultures, cultural practices and natural conditions to foster a learning environment among peers and encourage adoption of best practices; and 3) develop advanced, yet user-friendly algorithms or software that can monitor crop development and provide in-season and post-season analysis to aid in decision making.
Like many other projects, the initial development of PLAN was not easy. In March 2020, just before the COVID pandemic, we hosted a roundtable with stakeholders to discuss what a network should look like and key points to consider. Shortly after the meeting, when we were ready to install sensors in growers’ fields, the pandemic struck and we struggled to install soil water sensors in six production fields (see graph) .
The first year experience was not smooth, but we were able to collect critical information such as telemetry performance, issues with the website and processing server, for further tweaks and improvements.
In 2021, PLAN has expanded to 23 fields of all sizes (locations and size distribution in photo), including three fields of sugar beets, eight fields of corn, 10 fields of dry edible beans and two fields of alfalfa. Soil water sensors have been installed in these fields. Soil type, texture, crop variety, planting / harvest date, irrigation type, nitrogen application rate and tillage operations were recorded for each field.
Sensor readings are reported on a fully in-house developed website, phrec-irrigation.com. One unique feature we added was the “comment” feature. When producers have questions about a particular reading, they can click on the reading and write their questions. Nebraska Extension staff are notified and can directly verify the reading and respond to the comment immediately. We hope that this new mode of interaction will improve the user experience and be added to traditional means of communication (phone calls and site visits).
In addition to soil water sensors, in 2022, PLAN will bring other sensors to each field: temperature and relative humidity (RH) sensors, GPS sensors and canopy imaging sensors to enable more comprehensive sensor-based monitoring and management.
As harvest continues this fall, we are collecting performance information from participating fields for 2021. Yields will be analyzed to assess which management practices are beneficial for crop production and which are not. Please stay tuned for future updates.