Increasing Sustainability and Efficiencies with Precision Agriculture, With Lori Duncan

Posted: April 4, 2023

Episode Description

Lori Duncan, associate professor at the University of Tennessee, discusses how precision agriculture increases efficiency and sustainability on Tennessee’s farms. Of course, none of this would be possible without access to reliable internet!


Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Intro: The following program is brought to you by the Tennessee Broadband Association. Lead Tennessee Radio, conversations with the leaders moving our state forward. We look at the issues shaping Tennessee’s future: rural development, public policy, broadband, healthcare and other topics impacting our communities.

Carrie Huckeby: Hello, I’m Carrie Huckeby, the executive director of the Tennessee Broadband Association. And tomorrow kicks off National Agriculture Week with March 21st designated as National Agriculture Day. So on this episode of Lead Tennessee Radio, it seems only fitting to talk about technology and precision agriculture. What part does it play in putting food on the table? Why is it important to farming sustainability here in Tennessee, the nation and globally? Well, my guest will be helping us understand these very things. Dr. Lori Duncan is Associate Professor of Row Crop Sustainability Specialist Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science at the University of Tennessee. And she’s one of the few in the country focused on row crop sustainability and spends a lot of her time boots on the ground, out in the field, literally working and talking with Tennessee farmers. She also provides support to the extension agents in all 95 counties across the state. So she’s a very busy person, and I’m thrilled she’s joined us. Welcome, Lori. It’s good to have you here.

Dr. Lori Duncan: Hi, Carrie. Thanks for having me and for that introduction.

Carrie Huckeby: You’re welcome. Well, for those that may not be familiar with the term “precision agriculture” or sometimes called “smart farming,” or those that haven’t really thought about how technology, broadband and farming go together, tell us what it is and describe some of the technology or the platforms that fall under that definition.

Dr. Lori Duncan: Sure. So most people that aren’t directly involved in agriculture have preconceived notions of farmers and farms in the US, and they don’t realize the level of sophistication and technology that we’re using on so many farms in Tennessee. Precision agriculture is a concept where we measure variability within a crop field or a livestock herd, and we respond to that in a site specific or an animal specific manner. So instead of applying fertilizer at the same rate over a field, we can actually vary that rate across the field, only applying what is required in the place where we’ve measured it. With robotic milkers, dairies can collect animal specific data to assist in handling nutrition specific to each cow. So the level of sophistication that we’re to now, I think is surprising to a lot of people.

Carrie Huckeby: I agree. I was reading an article a few weeks ago that one of our telcos had put in their regional telco magazine, and it was all about dairy farming and how specific they could be with milk production. So I hadn’t really thought about, you know, I’d thought more about crops, but I hadn’t really thought about the dairy industry and precision tools and methods.

Dr. Lori Duncan: Yeah, I deal mostly in row crops, but we have plenty of faculty that focus on precision livestock farming. And it is interesting the amount of technologies they have now, specifically in poultry farms, dairy farms and a lot of beef cattle now.

Carrie Huckeby: Well, you mentioned the fertilizer and being able to determine which parts of the field need the fertilizer. What other things fall under precision agriculture? What are some of the other tools? I think I’ve read about GPS, which that’s probably used for water and fertilizer. What are some of the other tools that are used under precision agriculture?

Dr. Lori Duncan: Oh man, there’s so many. So yeah, GPS was kind of the foundation of precision agriculture. So we have to know where we are in a field so we can know where to apply the input, whether it be seed or water or fertilizer or herbicide. And so, yeah, GPS, you know, back in the 90s really started off this big push towards the ability to do precision agriculture. And so now we see a lot of auto guidance, which is, you know, where we can have autonomous tractors ultimately. But right now, you know, it can self drive, or it can keep us within a row. So we are driving our tractor exactly where it needs to be. And we also have drones now. And that’s been a big thing in the last 5 to 10 years. So we have drones that monitor our crops for crop health. It can identify a spot in the field that’s maybe doing poorly that we can’t see from the edge. So there’s a lot of technologies that kind of fall under that precision ag umbrella, including temporal things. So irrigation scheduling is a big one. If we want to know when to irrigate a crop, we can use soil moisture sensors in the ground that can communicate with that center pivot and actually trigger that irrigation event.

Carrie Huckeby: The tools that are out there today to help be more efficient and more productive, it’s still amazes me, even when I read about it and hear about it. And I saw some stats from Farm Bureau the other day, and I was surprised to learn that there are almost 70,000 farms in our state alone and that 40% of our land mass is farms. That average acreage, I think reported, was around 154 acres. There was 64% crops, 36% livestock. But I know as we talked a little earlier about hobby farming, you know, there’s the agritourism, community gardens, things like that. But in your opinion, does it matter how large or small the farm is, whether they can use these smart farming techniques? And I imagine sustainability is important no matter the acreage or whether they’ve been farming five years or 50 years.

Dr. Lori Duncan: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I think any farm, regardless of size or commodity, can utilize these techniques, these smart farming techniques. And some of the technologies do lend themselves to larger acreages, just due to scale and the ROI. So if you have, you know, more production ground that you’re spreading that input, that capital cost over, then you know, your payback period will be shorter. But I mean, we can, you know, you can soil test gardens in a very small grid size and be able to apply, you know, fertilizers very specifically to individual plants, individual sections of your garden. And so I definitely think that we can scale these technologies. You know, sometimes we have issues making these technologies work to the fullest capability. And one of the issues we have is we need a method of wireless communication. So some of these different products on the market, say for irrigation or GPS collars on cattle, farmers are having to use cell phone modems that are dedicated for that one purpose or some of these things use Bluetooth or radio communications. But ultimately we have to have Internet access to get that data back to the farmer. Many of these things are app based, and so to get that information to the farmer who needs to make the ultimate decision on whatever the management is at that point, you know, we have to have Internet. So some of our rural parts of the state, that’s still a very real challenge for us, as you well know.

Carrie Huckeby: Right. And we talked about that a little bit before the podcast, that there are spots in Tennessee without or limited broadband access. And our members are working, you know, to ensure that that gets solved. So I know the limited connectivity, and plus sounds like there’s the need for wireless devices to also make that work, that that’s a challenge that’s still evolving. What are some of the other hurdles, though, besides the connectivity, what are other things to overcome for the ag community in order to utilize the technology or to make changes to their operations? Are there other things that hold them back from accepting it?

Dr. Lori Duncan: Yeah. Mean think the high initial cost of any kind of technology is a barrier. We’ve seen a lot of technologies come down in price, which is interesting because at the same time we’re seeing things like fertilizer and seed prices increasing substantially. So at some point there’s a trade off there. But, you know, we’ve also seen with drones. For example, I purchased an airplane style fixed wing drone, and I’d say 6 or 7 years ago, maybe a little bit longer, for a $30,000. And that same product today is only worth $9,000. So there’s been, you know, as technologies come out and evolve, we’re going to see those prices drop off. So I would say the capital costs of getting into some kind of high level of technology is a real barrier. And also education, you know, some of our farmers just aren’t familiar with some of these technologies and just need more exposure to them. I’ve had a lot more calls recently. Like I said, I work primarily with row crops, but more recently, I get a lot of calls from our agents in counties with a lot of cattle farmers, and they’re wanting to look at guidance options as they spray and fertilize their pastures and hay ground. So I think that just having that exposure and knowing they have somebody to call on for help is really important.

Carrie Huckeby: Yes, I agree. Have you found in your research with, you said you concentrate on row crop, have you found that there’s one row crop that does better with the technology than another? Or does it affect cotton, corn, soybeans all the same?

Dr. Lori Duncan: I mean, I think that, you know, with certain crops like corn, it requires quite a bit of nitrogen, which is, you know, environmentally sensitive to put on a lot of nitrogen. It’s also really expensive. You know, we see a lot more benefit with certain technologies, like variable rate application. So I think they all benefit. I don’t see any crop that doesn’t benefit from these technologies, but some more so than others.

Carrie Huckeby: Makes sense. Another Farm Bureau stat I saw says that farming has a current economic impact of $81 billion. I mean, that’s billion. It’s amazing. If farms are using these precision ag tools like the auto guidance, precision irrigation, I even saw machine fleet analytics, is their data showing the expected impact technology will have on crop production maybe in the next five years or even ten years? Is that one of the things that you talk about and research?

Dr. Lori Duncan: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s, you know, the data is going to be very specific to that technology, but Precision AG is all about increasing efficiency. So that means that we’re optimizing the level of production, whether that’s higher yields, better quality forage, healthier livestock, whatever that commodity is, we’re optimizing it to the amount of inputs we’re going to put into the system. So from that economic standpoint, this means our farmers are optimizing their inputs instead of oversupplying. Sometimes that means they buy less fertilizer or less seed, sometimes it means they buy more. The bottom line is that they’re making better use of those products where they are needed and when they are needed. So lending from that to the environmental perspective, this means that more of the fertilizers, more of the herbicides, more of the irrigation water is used where it’s needed, and it’s not running off into our waterways.

Carrie Huckeby: Which is very important.

Dr. Lori Duncan: Yes, very important.

Carrie Huckeby: And so break that down. What does that mean to me as the average Tennessee consumer? If the farmers are using these kind of technologies, and it’s being more efficient, does that mean lower food costs for me at the grocery store?

Dr. Lori Duncan: I mean, I think that you can make the argument that at one point it would, if the farmers are getting to optimize, you know, their inputs. But I think it means that we, as a society, are doing a better job. So we’re optimizing those yields in that product and doing less harm to the environment. So that means, you know, better drinking water for all of us. That means, you know, better products for all of us. So think that, you know, you can make the argument that it could make a price difference, but ultimately, I think, us moving forward as a society and being sensitive to the limited resources we have is what we’re seeing in agriculture right now.

Carrie Huckeby: Yeah, it’s all about the sustainability part, I think. Yeah. Well, for the hobby farmer or the full-time farmer, the wannabe farmer out there interested, if they want to learn more about sustainability, how to keep their farm viable, do they contact their local extension agent or where do they find these resources to learn more about what you’re doing every day and the benefits of your research?

Dr. Lori Duncan: Yes, please visit your local Tennessee extension agent. We have University of Tennessee and Tennessee State University extension agents in every county across the state. So all you have to do is Google UT or TSU extension and your county name, and their website will come up. But they are a wealth of knowledge themselves. I can focus on my specific subject matter, but they are so knowledgeable in every area, and then they can get you in contact with myself or any of the other subject matter experts at the university. They can also connect you to resources like the local FSA office, NRCS office, anything like that. They’ve got those local relationships and connections that really is meaningful and impactful to the residents.

Carrie Huckeby: And I think UT also has field days, do they not, throughout the year where they’re concentrating on different subjects?

Dr. Lori Duncan: Yes, absolutely. We have, I believe the number now is ten research and education centers across the state that focus on, you know, the commodities that are specific to that area. And they all have their own individual field days every year. So please check those out. You can look at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture website, and there’s events listings on there.

Carrie Huckeby: Great. I think I actually saw one on precision agriculture maybe later in the year, maybe September or something like that. So lots of helpful information out there.

Dr. Lori Duncan: Yes, definitely. We also have extension publications, if you’re interested in looking at any of those, but they’re all on our website.

Carrie Huckeby: Great. Well, Lori, as I mentioned, it’s National Agriculture Week. Any special plans this week that you celebrate?

Dr. Lori Duncan: I specifically have two young daughters, so we spend a lot of time with them reading and telling them about agriculture. And, you know, we live in Knoxville, so they don’t get to see a whole lot of agriculture unless it’s through mom. So I think it’s just really important that we’re communicating to our youth and to the, you know, 99% of the people that aren’t involved in agriculture like you and I. So just spending time educating those individuals and answering questions.

Carrie Huckeby: Yeah, I think that’s very important. My two grandchildren came to visit this past weekend or for spring break last week, and we got outside as much as we could, weather permitting. But, you know, it is different for them, and it’s educational, you know, to see, you know, the gardening and things that you can do. So it is very important, I think, to spread that knowledge to our youth and get them interested in agriculture, for sure.

Dr. Lori Duncan: Yes, absolutely.

Carrie Huckeby: Anything you’d like to add or anything we should look for, you know, looking into your crystal ball for the future, Lori? Anything you think we’ll see in agriculture?

Dr. Lori Duncan: I think that we’re just at the beginning of what precision agriculture is going to do. You know, we’ve seen a lot of development in the last just two years. We’re looking at autonomous tractors being on the market, you know, high speed tractors, anything that can increase our efficiency. You know, I think, we’re going to see it. So I guess just stay tuned.

Carrie Huckeby: I think that’s good. Well, thank you, Lori. I really appreciate your time. I know you’re very busy.

Dr. Lori Duncan: Yeah, Thank you for having me. This was fantastic.

Carrie Huckeby: Great. Well, my guest has been Dr. Lori Duncan, Associate Professor, Row Crop Sustainability Specialist Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science at the University of Tennessee. And you’ve been listening to Lead Tennessee Radio, produced by the Tennessee Broadband Association, cooperative and independent companies connecting our state’s rural communities and beyond with world class broadband.