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Panhandle Learning Agricultural Network aims to increase farmer adoption of field-based sensors

By Xin Qiao
Irrigation and Water Management Specialist, Nebraska Extension

Nowadays, farmers have more access than ever to data of all kinds about their crops, thanks to rapid development of sensor and telemetry technologies over the past few decades. Yet the adoption rate of sensors for farming operations is still low, possibly due to cost, comfortability of adapting to sensor-based management, concerns on return on investment, and other reasons.

Farm machinery is commonly equipped with sensors for monitoring planting, harvesting, and other field operations. For monitoring plants within fields, the most common sensors used are perhaps 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 the readings from one or more sensors, along with the characteristics of that field, to make day-to-day decisions.

Commercial platforms are usually general — designed to be used at many fields across different climate regions. But sensor readings and their meanings can vary with crops that are grown, with different soil types, climate, tillage, irrigation equipment, etc. To get the most benefit from sensor-based crop management, it’s essential to learn and recognize these differences to ensure quality of sensor readings.



PLAN

Starting in late 2019, the Irrigation and Digital Ag Lab at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center began to build a research and extension platform named Panhandle Learning Agricultural Network. PLAN aims to use sensors, low-cost telemetry such as Internet of Things (IoT), localized algorithms, and an interactive data display and processing interface to better serve the farming community in the Nebraska Panhandle.



The goals of PLAN are 1) increasing adoption rate of sensor-based crop management; 2) creating a learning network including different fields with different crops, cultural practices, and natural conditions to foster a peer-to-peer learning environment and encourage adoption of better practices; and 3) developing advanced, yet user-friendly, algorithms or software that can monitor development of crops and provide in-season and post-season analytics to aid decision making.

Like many other projects, early development of PLAN was not easy. In March 2020, just before the COVID pandemic, we held a roundtable meeting with stakeholders to discuss what a network should look like and the key points to consider. Shortly after the meeting, as we were geared up and ready to install sensors at growers’ fields, the pandemic hit and we struggled to install soil water sensors at six production fields (See graphic).

The first-year experience was not smooth, but we were able to gather critical information such as performance of telemetry, issues with the website and processing server, for later adjustment and improvement.

In 2021, PLAN has grown into 23 fields of all sizes (locations and size distribution in photo), including three sugar beet fields, eight corn fields, 10 dry edible bean fields, and two alfalfa fields. Soil water sensors were installed at those 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 at a fully-in-house-developed website, phrec-irrigation.com. One unique feature we have added was the “comment” feature. When growers have question about a particular reading, they can click on the reading and write down their questions. Nebraska Extension personnel are notified and can directly check the reading and reply to the comment right away. We hope this new way of interaction will enhance user experience and add to traditional ways 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 imagery sensors to enable more comprehensive sensor-based monitoring and management.

As harvest is ongoing this fall, we are collecting yield information from 2021 participating fields. Yields will be analyzed to evaluate which management practices are beneficial for crop production and which ones are not. Please stay tuned for future updates.

Anyone who is interested or has suggestions or questions about PLAN, can contact Dr. Xin Qiao at xin.qiao@unl.edu, (308) 632-1240 or Gary Stone at gstone2@unl.edu, (308) 632-1230.


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