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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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New Technology Could Make Farming More Precise

LAS CRUCES - Bob Sanderson, a pest management specialist with New Mexico State University's Agricultural Experiment Station, is hoping to take a little bit of the guesswork out of farming in New Mexico.

By combining the ideas of precision farming with new technology, farmers can make better decisions to increase yields and decrease fertilizer and pesticide use, Sanderson says.

"With precision farming, also known as prescription agriculture or farming-by-the-foot, farmers try to tailor their inputs -- chemicals and fertilizer -- to specific parts of the field, almost to specific plants or trees," he said.

Precision farming relies on three technologies global positioning satellite (GPS) systems, remote sensing, and geographic information systems (GIS).

GPS allows pinpointing of positions on the globe, Sanderson explained. "If we want to know the position of a plant or a type of soil in a field, we can map it very precisely with GPS," he said.

Remote sensing, which can be done with satellite imagery or aerial photography, gives a bird's eye perspective of farm fields. Sanderson gets the satellite data daily from the Army Research Laboratory's receiving station at White Sands Missile Range.

"The third technology or component is GIS, which is basically database software that allows us to pull together and overlay different information," Sanderson said. "We may have a map of the field overlaid with a map of the soil types overlaid with a map of the fertilizer applications that are put on."

When all the maps are put together, farmers can figure out important information like where the soil is poor and needs additional fertilizer.

Precision agriculture allows more automation of equipment. Navigational systems can be used to record pesticide and fertilizer applications and yield during harvesting.

"As the tractor drives across the field, the system refers back to the database and the maps," Sanderson explained. "It says, 'This plant needs this amount of fertilizer or this amount of chemical input.' And then, it switches on the appropriate amount. Then the next bit further down the road might not need as much."

In one precision agriculture project, Sanderson is working with the La Union Soil and Water Conservation District and the Natural Resource Conservation Service. "We're doing aerial photography on a weekly basis, trying to detect stress in fields using infrared photography," he said.

Vegetation strongly reflects infrared radiation, which falls just outside the visible range of the light spectrum.

"If the vegetation is stressed for some reason, whether it's water, insect or disease stress, it won't reflect as strongly," Sanderson said. "We won't be able to visually see this immediately. But by looking at pictures of the infrared reflectance, we might be able to detect some of that stress in those crops."

Immediate or real-time information is the key to precision agriculture. "Farmers want the information now, so that they can make adjustments quickly. They don't want to wait three or four weeks before they see the picture or before they know there's a problem in the field," Sanderson said.

Nine growers in the Mesilla Valley are involved in the pilot project. The information from the flights is posted on a World Wide Web site to help the growers make decisions about what their crops need each week.

Sanderson also is teaming up with the Army Research Laboratory and Fort Bliss' Directorate of Environment to look for funding to expand the use of the data generated from the daily satellite images. The technology can be used to solve problems in natural resources and the environment, as well agriculture.

In the classroom, Sanderson is introducing students to the latest technologies in two new courses -- environmental assessment and applied GPS technology.