University of Georgia

Farming for the future: UGA leads the way in precision agriculture

Photography By Andrew Davis Tucker, Clint Thompson, Peter Frey
Professor George Vellidis works with graduate student Anna Orfanou on checking the circuit board of a University of Georgia Smart Sensor Array node.
Professor George Vellidis works with graduate student Anna Orfanou on checking the circuit board of a University of Georgia Smart Sensor Array node. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker)

A fifth-generation farmer in Calhoun County, Adam McLendon starts his days at the crack of dawn.

He looks at software logs that show his tractors’ fuel use the previous day, and whether his irrigation system is functioning efficiently. He reviews satellite imagery of his 8,500 acres of corn, cotton, peanuts and pecans, revealing which areas he needs to prioritize.

“I spend the first 45 minutes of my day, every day of the week, utilizing technology to make me a more efficient manager of our labor and our farm,” McLendon said.

Efficient management is the hallmark of modern agriculture. Scientists project that the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion by the middle of the century, and to feed all those people, crop production will need to double in the next 30 years.

With this challenge looming, precision agriculture—the use of technology to increase the profitability, efficiency and sustainability of crop production—has become an indispensable part of farm management as growers try to maximize every acre.

The University of Georgia was among the first academic institutions to delve into precision agriculture when it emerged in the mid-1990s. A quarter-century later, UGA is stepping up efforts to expand its faculty, curriculum, research and outreach to again become a leader in the field.

“There has always been a historical willingness to adopt new technologies in agriculture. The sustainable future of Georgia agriculture will remain dependent on the creation and adoption of new technology,” said Sam Pardue, dean and director of the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “Today, we are faced with the challenge of feeding a world in which demand for food is expected to double. Feeding a growing world requires getting more yield out of each precious acre of land.”

“Technology will never replace a farmer’s intimate knowledge of his land and his resources, but it allows us to prioritize and become better stewards of the land and our resources to be more efficient.”

– Adam McLendon, farm manager of McLendon Acres in Leary, Ga.

Wes Porter, UGA Extension precision agriculture & irrigation specialist (Photo by Clint Thompson)

Agriculture is Georgia’s largest industry. According to UGA’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, agriculture contributes more than $73 billion to the state economy, with row and forage crops injecting more than $11.5 billion. Cotton is planted on the most acres, but Georgia ranks No. 1 in the nation in production of peanuts, pecans and blueberries.

Suffice to say, agriculture is big business in Georgia, and UGA’s outreach around precision agriculture techniques has played a big role in the state’s agricultural expansion.

“As we’ve seen technology progress at such a rapid pace, we’ve seen the University of Georgia’s role grow … as that unbiased third party that can help some of these growers feel comfortable using these technologies and not feel like it’s being pushed on them by industry,” said Wes Porter, the UGA Extension precision agriculture and irrigation specialist.

21ST century farming

The tools of precision agriculture include an array of technologies like GPS guidance and soil sampling, sensors, robotics, drones, autonomous vehicles, variable rate technology, control systems, smartphone apps and software.

From GPS guidance that accurately operates tractors planting and harvesting row crops, to soil moisture monitors and irrigation software that keep growers constantly informed about water application, precision technology has transformed modern agriculture.

“We’re all so accustomed to the technology, it would be incredibly challenging without it,” McLendon said. “Technology will never replace a farmer’s intimate knowledge of his land and his resources, but it allows us to prioritize and become better stewards of the land and our resources to be more efficient.”

Farming in the last quarter century barely resembles what McLendon’s ancestors did.

“It is mind-blowing to see how far agriculture has progressed,” said Calvin Perry, the superintendent of UGA’s C.M. Stripling Irrigation Research Park in Camilla, Georgia. “But I think of my grandfather who was plowing behind a mule and then saw GPS auto-steer guidance on tractors in his lifetime. Putting it in that perspective, yeah, we’ve come a ways, but some folks have seen even greater change.”

Professor George Vellidis (left) and graduate students Anna Orfanou and Dimitrios Pavlou fly one of the drones that their research team uses for quick assessment of the health of their crops over their research field at the Tifton Campus.

A spark from two students

Back in 1995, Stuart Pocknee and Broughton Boydell were beginning their Ph.D. and master’s degrees, respectively, at UGA in the CAES Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. Their thesis and dissertation—“The Management of Within-Field Soil Variability” by Pocknee and “Yield Mapping of Peanut: A First Stage in the Development of Precision Farming for Peanut” by Boydell—weren’t just any grad student projects. Their studies launched UGA into the realm of precision agriculture.

They wanted to evaluate and measure the variability in fields and yields: soil properties, nutrient levels, everything that affects how a crop grows. Their professor, Craig Kvien, turned to colleagues George Vellidis (then an assistant professor) and Calvin Perry (research engineer) for help with developing a peanut yield monitor.

“We didn’t have any tools to do that,” said Vellidis, now a professor in crop and soil sciences and director of academic programs at UGA’s Tifton Campus. “That’s what got us into the research arena of precision agriculture, to try to develop these tools that would give these students the ability to do the research they wanted. And it just sort of exploded from there.

“It’s a cool twist that we got started on this because of two students who came here with ideas we hadn’t thought of yet. They helped us launch a program that is still going strong 25 years later.”

UGA developed a patented peanut yield monitoring system and did similar research on cotton yield monitors. It was also a pioneer in the development of variable-rate irrigation, helping bring that technology to market in the mid-2000s.

Adaption and adoption

For much of the last decade, UGA has focused on technologies that could be adopted by farmers in Georgia and the Southeast. Porter, who received the Educator/Researcher Award from the PrecisionAg Institute in 2019, became the most recent member of the UGA precision ag team to be nationally and internationally recognized for his work. Porter works with Georgia farmers to promote innovations that can benefit the state’s agriculture industry and make it more sustainable.

“My role is to help to develop and apply research that’s been done by our scientists or in collaboration with extension specialists and to work with our farmers and extension agents to get that information out to our farmers,” said Porter. “To make sure they know how to implement it and are comfortable using it on their farms.”

Some of that work includes using unmanned autonomous vehicles and multispectral cameras to develop in-season fertility recommendations for corn and cotton. Porter also studies variable-depth planting based on soil texture to increase yield. Some of that research has taken place on McLendon’s farm, which has a mix of cotton, corn and peanuts.

“We are very fortunate as growers in Georgia to have the University of Georgia,” McLendon said. “They’re an unbelievable resource for agriculture in the area. We’ve worked with them to try to have a number of acres allotted to research and development each year, and then we weed through that R&D to decide what we’re going to adapt in the commercial operation here.”

Adoption by farmers is key. When the price tag appears overwhelming, it is up to the researchers and extension specialists to show farmers the potential benefits. Auto-steer is a perfect example of this. With a price tag approaching $25,000 per vehicle, it was hard for farmers to see the break-even point. But UGA research showed that using auto-steer has big payoffs in peanut production by significantly reducing digging losses when inverting peanuts, reducing overlaps on spraying and tillage operations, and improving overall efficiency. In many cases, it has a one-year payback.

“We thought it was too expensive and farmers would probably never adopt it,” recalls Perry. “Within a few years, nearly every farmer had it on every tractor. And they often use variable-rate spraying and variable-rate fertilizer application. All of those now are accepted standards of how to do business, when early on they were pie-in-the-sky.”

field instrument prototype
This device is a circuit board of a University of Georgia Smart Sensor Array (UGA SSA) sensor, an inexpensive wireless soil moisture sensing system that allows for a high density of sensor nodes to be installed in a field – a feature needed to capture soil variability and enable dynamic prescription maps for variable rate irrigation systems. (Photo by Peter Frey)

VRI hasn’t quite achieved the same adoption rates as auto-steering. UGA developed VRI technologies that have been broadly adopted by irrigation companies, but cost and complexity have limited its adoption by farmers.

“The cost factor can really add up if you’re retrofitting a very large center-pivot operation,” Perry said. “If you buy an auto-steer system for your tractor, you’re going to use that tool over every acre that you farm. But when it comes to something you add to a center-pivot irrigation system, it’s only going to be used for that system for that field. So you can’t spread that cost out over a lot of acres.”

While his operation only uses VRI on a field-by-field basis due to its cost, McLendon says irrigation management software is a critical element of his operation.

“It allows us to monitor what we’re putting out water-wise and align that with what the crop needs at any given growth stage,” he said. “Those are things we use on a day-to-day basis that really do help our bottom line and help us be more efficient managers of our time and resources. It pays for itself quickly.”

Porter, Vellidis and Perry continue to do research that shows the benefits of precision irrigation. Vellidis calls it the “missing piece of the puzzle” for farming, particularly in the Southeast.

“We need to show our farmers what a dramatic impact it makes on their efficiency to use smart irrigation tools,” Vellidis said. “Not only will they use less water and energy, but over-irrigating also depresses their yields. We have to educate people that more water is not always better.”

GPS-driven auto-steer technology for tractors was an innovation that UGA researchers once thought was too expensive for farmers to adopt, but most commercial growers have added the technology to their tractors after learning it can pay for itself as quickly as a single season.

Keeping up with Big Data

The biggest growth area in precision agriculture is data acquisition and management. In the early days of floppy discs and unreliable radio transmission relays, getting data from battery-hogging field monitors was a cumbersome chore that took substantial time and effort. Now, with computer chips linking monitors by cell signal, massive volumes of data can be uploaded directly to the internet in seconds.

“Things that were hard to do in the early days are now easy and cheap instead of complicated and expensive,” Perry said. “It opens up a lot of new opportunities to do things that were out of our reach years ago.”

All that data requires significant adjustments in the educational mission.

This representation of a cotton field was created from multispectral imagery taken from an unmanned aerial vehicle. The darker green areas typically indicate healthier vegetation and/or high biomass areas, while the dark red areas are soil. Orange, yellow and light green areas typically indicate dead or unhealthy vegetation and/or low biomass rates. (Image courtesy of David Daughtry)

“Back then collecting data was the bottleneck; now the bottleneck is how do we use the data to make better management decisions,” Vellidis said. “We’re collecting data on a terabyte scale, and we just don’t have the know-how or the algorithms to convert all the data into actionable management decisions for farmers. That’s the research frontier right now. We want to be able to mine this data and extract as much as we can out of it.”

Harald Scherm, CAES department head in plant pathology, worked with colleagues from multiple UGA departments to create a new graduate level Agricultural Data Science Certificate. The interdisciplinary program—which launched in 2018 with core courses focusing on data handling, quality control, data analysis and interpretation—is designed for graduate students in traditional agriculture and food science disciplines to become more literate in manipulating and analyzing large data sets that are generated by precision agriculture or crop modeling analytics.

“We’re not training computer scientists or statisticians but really people who can bridge the gap, in that they have the domain knowledge of agriculture and the kinds of data being generated,” Scherm said. “They’ll also have basic understanding of various analytical approaches that can be used to deal with these data and ultimately help interpret the data and put it in context.

“It’s a unique program and fits into the overall precision agriculture space. It’s a part of the puzzle.”

Working across boundaries

Changying “Charlie” Li, a professor of phenomics and plant robotics in the College of Engineering, is focused on another growing area under the umbrella of precision agriculture: high-throughput phenotyping. Li is finishing a five-year Specialty Crop Research Initiative project on the mechanical harvesting of fresh-market blueberries and phenotyping technologies for blueberry mechanical harvestability selection.

“We developed a mechanical harvest aid system where you can substantially increase the harvest efficiency, while at same time keeping quality as good as hand-picked fruit,” Li said. “The 3D imaging technology could help plant breeders change the shape of a plant to be more conducive to mechanical harvesting.”

Li also has led a National Robotics Initiative project on high-throughput phenotyping: developing robots and imaging technology in tandem with traditional biology techniques to non-invasively map observable characteristics, such as biomass, canopy architecture and yield. The technology could help breeders and geneticists, for example, enhance breeding efficiency and pinpoint genes responsible for stress tolerance and high yield.

All these projects illustrate the diversity of disciplines needed to foster advancements in precision agriculture.

“We have to work across the boundaries and work with people in different disciplines,” Li said. “Electrical engineers, computer scientists, geneticists, horticulturalists, plant pathologists, economists, statisticians and geographers.”

Said Vellidis: “We need everybody working together to solve these problems.”

To promote that kind of interdisciplinary work, UGA created a Center for Phenomics and Plant Robotics in 2018, with 30 faculty members from four different schools and colleges and many different departments.

“There’s synergy that can be developed to work on a lot of these problems,” said Perry.

Changying "Charlie" Li (center) working with an agriculture robot in a blueberry field.
Professor Charlie Li (center) in the College of Engineering develops innovative sensing and automation technologies to help provide high-quality fiber, food and fuel to sustain the world’s growing population. One of his projects is the development of robotic technologies to assist in the harvesting and processing and field crops such as blueberries. (Photo by Peter Frey)

Eye on the future

UGA is adding faculty to assist in outreach and research with designs on restoring its place as the academic leader in precision agriculture.

“I think UGA has a legacy in this area,” Li said of UGA’s commitment to growing its faculty resources in precision ag. “Higher computing power, better machine-learning algorithms and more agricultural data are providing an unprecedented opportunity for precision agriculture and smart farming. A lot of issues we could not have resolved 30 years ago now are possible to address.”

Everyone involved in precision agriculture at UGA, from Tifton to Athens, believes the next 10 to 20 years will see dramatic changes in automation and robotics as farmers maximize efficiency and production to become more sustainable.

“Ultimately where we’re going will be to develop fleets of autonomous machines—that’s the direction we see over the next 20 years,” Vellidis said. “We could have these swarms of robots going plant by plant with sensors on them to detect insects or disease pressure or water stress, or to harvest cotton one boll at a time.”

Until the robots take over, McLendon is satisfied with the direction technology is moving and the many ways it’s already improved his way of life.

“You have an app on your phone you pull up [to monitor] your irrigation pivot wherever it is, and you can see where it’s pointed and how it’s watering, what the pressure is like and also receive text message alerts as to whether or not that pivot has shut down in the middle of the night,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times, before we started utilizing that technology, that we checked pivots at 8 o’clock right before we knock off for the day and it’s watering good, and you come back at 7 the next morning and it’s about 10 yards from where you checked it. It’s still watering, wasting water, wasting energy, wasting everything—just for lack of technology monitoring.”