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Precision ag research initiatives to build innovation ecosystem

Cow with collar for virtual fencing project
Steers at the Cottonwood Research Station have been fitted with virtual fencing collars to compare the impact of continuous or virtual rotational grazing on animal behavior and grazing distribution. This technology can help ranchers implement rotational grazing more efficiently.

Story written by: Christie Delfanian

Using precision agriculture and natural resource data to increase the efficiency, profitability and sustainability of crop and livestock production—that vision is driving research initiatives to build an ecosystem to fuel innovation that benefits the state’s largest industry.

The momentum and excitement surrounding the Raven Precision Agriculture Center, which opened in fall 2021, has triggered even broader support for precision agriculture across the region, according to Distinguished Professor William Gibbons, associate dean for research for the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences and director of the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station.

The precision agriculture research summit Nov. 4 brought together stakeholders and researchers from multiple colleges within the university and SDSU Extension to discuss three cross-disciplinary initiatives—to refine agricultural data, to manage water and, finally, to address cybersecurity issues in partnership with Dakota State University.

“We are collaborating with industry to design the future of what we want precision ag to look like in this world-class facility,” Gibbons said. Private sector partnerships will not only inform and support research but also help commercialize innovations.

In addition to the integration of the departments of agricultural and biosystems engineering and agronomy, horticulture and plant science faculty within the building, Gibbons said, “We are already seeing the formation of multi-college teams to develop innovations that will benefit stakeholders.”

Those teams include experts in computer science, data science, electrical and mechanical engineering and mathematics from the Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering and geographic information systems and biology and microbiology from the College of Natural Sciences. The research projects apply precision technologies to cropping systems, livestock systems and conservation of natural resources that also affects wildlife.

Building on current research

The research summit acquainted attendees with precision ag projects that have the potential to help livestock and crop producers, while enhancing natural resources. “The summit was an effective mechanism to network with stakeholders about future research and development opportunities that will benefit South Dakota,” Gibbons said.

Researchers in animal science and natural resource management described a technology called a virtual fence that can benefit ranchers. Assistant professor and SDSU Extension livestock grazing specialist Jameson Brennan of SDSU’s West River Research and Extension center in Rapid City, installed two virtual fence base stations at the Cottonwood Research Station. Last summer the research team, which includes assistant professor Hector Menendez and assistant professor and SDSU Extension range specialist Krista Ehlert, outfitted yearling steers with virtual fence collars to compare the impact of continuous versus virtual rotational grazing on animal behavior and grazing distribution. The researchers will also use the technology to exclude cattle from environmentally sensitive areas, such as riparian zones, to improve wildlife habitat.

“Virtual fence technology has the potential to revolutionize how we manage natural resources on the landscape by allowing producers to essentially draw pasture boundaries,” Brennan said. This can give ranchers tremendous flexibility in implementing rotational grazing systems without added water and fence infrastructure or labor required to move animals or poly wire fences. It can also be coupled with remote sensing or grazing models to optimize where and when to rotate animals across the landscape to better capture nutrient availability and reduce areas of overgrazing.

Looking to future technologies

Professor Alexander “Sandy” Smart, SDSU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Senior Program Leader, shared how tools under development have the potential to enhance animal and plant production in response to a changing climate. “Climate-smart technologies are a way to make better predictions about weather and pest situations for crop and livestock production,” he said. When conditions are conducive for pests, technologies, such as sticky cards combined with artificial intelligence software or drones that collect insects, can estimate pest populations to alert producers to apply insecticides when the population reaches a specific threshold.

The improved South Dakota Mesonet system at SDSU can provide accurate temperature and precipitation estimates, as well as soil temperature and moisture from sensors embedded in fields. This data can be integrated into sophisticated models developed through satellites and global weather station networks to predict continental weather patterns, which can, for instance, move insects from the southern region to the northern Great Plains, Smart explained. Better predictive tools could have helped producers prepare for natural events, such as the 2013 Atlas blizzard, 2019 flooding and the 2021 drought.

“We are using data to inform producers about what they can do today to help them prepare for what’s coming in the future,” Gibbons said.

In addition, associate professor Songxin Tan of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science described how an emerging remote sensing technology called polarimetric LiDAR, which can be mounted on a drone, may allow farmers to track the growth of their crops from their home offices. The technology uses laser beams to produce real-time 3D images through which producers can decide when and where they need to apply water or chemicals, such as fertilizer, pesticides or fungicides.

“The (LiDAR) data can provide enhanced capabilities to characterize vegetation, complementing data from Earth-observing satellites, such as Landsat,” Tan said.

Innovating through unique perspectives

“We are bringing together people with very different skillsets who have unique perspectives and ideas that will create an innovation ecosystem to solve problems,” Gibbons said.

“Business professor and author Oren Harari noted that ‘the electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles,'” Gibbons continued. “It took someone coming at the challenge from a completely different angle, without preconceived ideas about how to solve the problem. That unexpected, unanticipated angle can often result in a transformative solution. This is the type of environment we are creating in the Raven Precision Agriculture Center.”