While humans have been growing crops and raising livestock for centuries, old-school agriculture is being replaced with high-tech tools that allow farmers to be more accurate and productive than ever before.
“Agriculture technology is changing the industry, and farmers are going to get the benefit from the technology boom,” says Xin (Rex) Sun, Ph.D., assistant professor of agriculture and biosystems engineering at North Dakota State University (NDSU). “It can help increase output and reduce inputs such as labor, fertilizers and herbicides so farmers can improve their operations.”
The global precision agriculture market could be worth more than $13.5 billion by 2023, doubling its current value, according to some estimates. Driving the trend are both increased demand for smarter, more efficient tools to monitor crop and livestock health and an increased willingness among farmers to adopt high-tech tools. The use of technology in agriculture is not new. Sun points out that farmers have been driving tractors and combines with autonomous controls and GPS since the early 1990s. Farmers are using the newest technologies, such as robotics, drones, artificial intelligence and variable rate application of fertilizers, to propel precision agriculture to the next level, further improving their operations.
At NDSU, Sun is researching using optical sensors, machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve crop and livestock production. His current projects include using artificial intelligence to monitor plant growth and detect weed species; deploying drones to take inventory of cattle, utilizing heat sensors to mark the location of cattle that have strayed from the herd; and testing handheld thermal sensors for early detection of disease in cattle.
“We want to give ranchers tools to better manage their herds from birth to slaughter. The earlier we can detect diseases, the earlier we can treat them and avoid losing [crops or] cattle,” he says. “Right now, we are doing some exciting field research.”
Sun believes that the technological advances coming out of NDSU will not only impact individual farmers in North Dakota but have a ripple effect across the global food production system.
With the global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, farmers and ranchers will be tasked with figuring out how to feed more people on less land – and agriculture technology can help address the need, according to Sun. First, the next generation of farmers needs to learn how to use the technology in the field.
Cultivating a Commitment to High Tech Farming
Precision agriculture has become so popular that NDSU started offering both a major and minor in agriculture and biosystems engineering in the spring of 2019. The curriculum was designed to help aspiring farmers understand the role technology can play in improving their operations and feeding the world. It includes a combination of classroom work and field experiences in agricultural engineering.
Enrollment in the precision ag major in the Department of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering at NDSU has doubled since last semester. Sun has been fielding questions from both current and prospective students who are considering the program, and he expects the number of students choosing to pursue precision ag will continue to increase.
“The university is one of the pioneers [in precision ag] with this program,” Sun says. “The technology is always changing, and we need to teach the next generation of farmers to use it to benefit their future farming businesses.” Agriculture technology is already being used on farms across North Dakota and around the world. Continued research at NDSU and beyond will help shape the future of farming, according to Sun. “Whether farms are big or small, technology can be deployed to make things more efficient and, in the future, I believe every farmer will gain benefits from using agriculture technology.”