Automation keeps research stations moving into future (Part One)

by | May 19, 2021

North Carolina’s 18 research stations are often thought of as a big piece of agriculture’s future. The research done on the stations helps farmers find better, more productive ways to produce more food and fiber for a growing population.

To keep moving agriculture into the future, the research stations are implementing several technologies that involve automation. That includes automated steering of tractors and even some automated planting and automated application of insecticides and fertilizers. Automation also helps milk and feed calves while also regularly weighing them and detecting other elements of their health. The automation helps create better data for research, make work a bit more manageable and improve the way livestock and crop health are monitored.

The automation in tractors and attached equipment is highlighted below. More details about automation in milking and calf feeding will be shared in a future Part Two.

Part One: GPS-guided tractors and automated equipment
Most stations now have at least one GPS-guided tractor. The Caswell and Lower Coastal Plain stations in Kinston use five tractors with steering guidance, commonly called auto-steer. The technology is so important for research stations, there’s a precision agriculture committee to help the stations stay abreast of advances and how to implement the technology.

Evan Taylor at the Kinston stations is on the committee. He says the auto-steer technology is usually added on to tractors, guiding them through the field so that a driver is only needed to make turns at the end of rows. The systems cut down on the fatigue a farmer would have from driving a tractor all day, and they can make it a lot quicker and easier to lay out, plant and maintain a study plot. Traditionally, laying out plots has required workers or researchers to pull out measuring tapes and flags to mark the ground. While that process hasn’t been completely eliminated, stations are adopting laying out test fields with GPS-guided tractors that create precise dimensions and rows. The automation makes it a lot easier for one person to do alone, and it’s especially helpful in very large fields like a 60-acre test plot at the stations.

That precision is the big advantage. The GPS-guided steering ensures evenly spaced rows, minimizing narrow and wide rows, which is important for consistency in research. Taylor said it reduces variation that’s naturally part of human operation. That can make a difference in field studies.

“The goal is to make your fields as consistent as possible because anytime you can do that you’ve helped the researcher,” Taylor said. “At the end of the day for us at the stations it’s all about data quality, and if we can use this technology for better data quality, that’s what we want to do.”

The display screen of a GPS-guidance system.

The auto-steer function on tractors can be easily set up while in the tractor, using interactive screens to activate the GPS-guidance. The tractor just follows lines that have been set for it. In some cases, the automation is taken a step further in order to control planting, spraying or fertilizing equipment attached to tractors.

Taking advantage of automation on those pieces of equipment takes more planning – usually beginning with sampling soil throughout a field. The field is divided into sections, and GPS guides where to take a sample in the middle of each section of the field. The soil samples are then tested, and results show variations in nutrient levels, soil pH and other elements of the soil. (Soil samples from research stations are sent to the Agronomics Division’s soil lab.) Computer software can then create a “prescription map” for the field that shows soil data for each section and where certain things such as fertilizer are needed most.

In this image, a field is divided into sections for soil sampling.

That software is linked to the GPS-guided tractors and automated equipment, so the prescription map can be uploaded to an automated fertilizer spreader. Then, as it goes through the field, it puts out fertilizer where it’s needed. The automated features of the tractor and the automated features of the spreader work together to adjust the rate of output, so just the right amount of fertilizer is put out in just the right areas. It’s called a variable rate application.

Again, the goal is to make the field as uniformed as possible so it’s a good base for research. So each section of the field gets a custom amount of fertilizer or lime, for example, in an effort to create that soil uniformity across the entire field.

Similar automation can be used when spraying a field with a liquid fertilizer, defoliant, or pesticide. Each section may need a different amount of treatment, and the automated equipment can make those adjustments based on the prescription map.

Ivy Lanier at the Cherry Research Farm says there’s even a “smart” planter at the station in Goldsboro that can detect certain elements of the soil and also use a prescription map. It can determine the amount of down force needed to keep the planter in the ground, and it can adjust to plant seeds at a consistent depth. It can also detect soil temperature, moisture, soil compaction and how much pressure to apply to close the seed furrows. Using a prescription map, the planter can also adjust how much fertilizer or insecticide to put in the seed furrows based on what’s needed in different areas of a field. It can even plant two different types of seeds based on the prescription for parts of the field.

Again, the goal is consistency and improved yields. The automation help makes even minor adjustments that could make a difference in squeezing out every bit of yield possible in each field.

“For every day that one plant comes up after another plant on the same row, there’s a yield lag because they’re going to be picked on the same day, and one of them may not be at optimal yield because they came up at different times.”

Lanier said Dr. Gary Roberson, a professor and researcher at N.C. State, has for several years been testing prescription maps and variable rate applications of nitrogen on cotton. Lanier believes the ultimate goal is to use automated equipment to detect what plants need in a field and adjust the spraying or spreading in real time instead of using prescription maps. That type of automation would shorten the current process of testing spots in a field, then putting that data into a map and then using that map to control the rate of application on the field.

Combining GPS-guided tractors with automated spreaders or sprayers can also cut down on costs. Variable rate sprayers eliminate excessive spraying, and they also automatically cut off when the GPS indicates the end of the row is reached. Some research has shown that automatic cutoff could save farmers about 15 percent on their chemical costs. More research could increase that savings even more and help farmers with a major bill.

“There’s promise because there is tremendous potential in how automation can help,” Lanier said. “We want to see how we can make things better for farmers who don’t have the time or resources to figure out the best options like we do.”