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20 Years of Precision

01:20AM Feb 12, 2014

Illinois farmer walks through tech advancements

Precision agriculture adoption is a journey—a path that has gotten gradually smoother, year by year. A few farmers, such as Illinois corn and soybean producer Ken Dalenberg, have been on that path since its rocky beginnings.

"We have come a long way, but in some ways, we are reinventing the wheel," he says. "We have come from grid soil sampling, variable-rate fertilizer and chemicals—but today, we can almost do anything imaginable with controllers and GPS."

Dalenberg discussed his observations about the evolution of precision ag technology during the past 20 years at the InfoAg conference this past summer. He operates Scattered Acres Farm in east-central Illinois where he has helped test and develop many precision ag products on the market today. Some of his other achievements include serving as a founding board member of the U.S. Soybean Export Council and working on the 1990 and 1998 farm bills.

Inventors with vision. During the late 1980s, Dalenberg and other farmers saw a need for precision ag equipment that didn’t even exist yet. They were grid-sampling with GPS and developing variable-rate fertilizer plans. But without a yield monitor, there was no way to know if their decisions paid off.

Enter engineer Al Myers. While many people were building yield monitor prototypes, Myers’ was the one that caught traction with farmers, which helped him establish Ag Leader.

"The original technology I brought to market in 1992 is the same technology behind the current Ag Leader yield monitor," Myers says.

Many enhancements were added later, he adds, including trouble-free moisture sensors, real-time on-screen mapping capabilities, performance analysis software and more.

Downsizes and upgrades. Dalenberg and other early adopters watched as these slow-but-steady improvements came through the 1990s and 2000s. Early challenges included erratic GPS signals, plus a lack of proper software and hardware solutions to allow them to do what they wanted.
"Everything had to be created as we went," he says.

But little by little, the technology got smaller, faster and more intuitive to use. Dalenberg points to mobile technology evolution as a prime example. The cellphones of yesteryear came with a tangle of wires, were stored in a bulky bag and had only one function. Today’s smartphones, in contrast, are much smaller but pack enough computing power to rival most laptops and home PCs.

Memory storage is another good example of a technology that has made incremental improvements, he says. Data transfer has seen an evolution from floppy disk to CD to USB stick to wireless transfer.

"We’ve come a long way in making data instantaneous and easy to share," Dalenberg says.
Most farmers don’t have 20 years of experience using precision ag, but Dalenberg says 2004 was a year when a lot of farmers jumped on the technology bandwagon.

"That’s about the time auto-steer really took off," he says. "If there was one thing that caught farmers’ attentions, it was auto-steer. There are still people today who use yield monitors but don’t do anything with the data, but they still use auto-steer religiously."

Despite the progress he’s seen in the past two decades, Dalenberg has little doubt that there’s much more to come in the future.

One trend that will help bring about the next round of technological improvements is open architecture. This allows more "plug and play" opportunities that will permit fluid interaction among equipment. Data ownership is also guaranteed to be a hot button topic.

"We still have mountains of information that has yet to be analyzed and used in a profitable manner. We will see many more changes as the industry continues to discuss ownership of data and how that data can be used," Dalenberg says.