GOODLAND — Weston McCary looks to life experiences like school or sports, and to technological industries while teaching his students.
As the Director of Precision Agriculture at Northwest Kansas Technical College, he wants to show his students that utilizing available technology makes sense. It’s just like any other industry. And he also wants to change the perception of what agriculture is.
He likens it to being a football coach.
“That mentality of ‘don’t tell me what to do, we’ve done it this way for x number of years,’ can’t always be changed with policy,” McCary said. “But we’re trying to change the head and the heart, and motivation to show that it’s not just about winning, it’s not just about making the most bushel.”
NWKTC co-hosted an Agriculture Technology Expo with the Kansas Agricultural Research and Technology Association August 29 to appeal to producers the way McCary appeals to his students. The expo gave producers an opportunity to learn what precision agriculture is, how it can benefit them, and see demonstrations of precision technology available from a multitude of dealers.
Precision agriculture is becoming a more and more household term in the agriculture community. It basically entails implementing technology on farms that can gather data from fields, as well as technology that can use that data. Tools like soil moisture probes can inform a producer on whether or not they need to irrigate, as well as if they need to put different amounts of water on different parts of a field. Geological information systems can map fields, showing differences in pH level, productivity and more.
“We’re trying to introduce new tools to young american farmers, including GIS,” McCary said as he pointed to a field map on a monitor in his classroom. “Look how variable our pH is on that field. Would you expect that field to perform uniform?”
He compares it to school. There’s areas of a field that are A students, and areas of a field that are slackers. With precision agriculture tools, producers can see which parts of the fields are which and act accordingly, whether that means applyings different levels of chemicals or seeding the field at a variable rate. Just like students, when you know strengths and weakness, you can approach each differently to help them perform at their best.
Changes in the world economy also play a role in the development of agriculture into the future, McCary said. With China growing to a world power of the past 50 years, increased farming in Europe and South America, McCary said the next generation will have to farm differently.
“What I’m teaching these young people is this is not your dad’s economy, therefore you can not just use your dad’s tools,” he said. “The tractor is fine, but now it’s not just a tractor, it’s a GPS-driven and data map-driven tractor. A cultivator and a planter is fine, but now we need to variably rate the seed density, chemical application, as well as water application, because our soils are not uniform. I’m only going to put the amount of chemical, seed density and water on an area that the soil can handle.”
It’s also not just higher-tech implements the next generation will have to understand. Programming makes things like guidance on tractors possible, and much of the new available technology sends data to smartphones, tablets or computers.
“Making a map today uses software, which means our ag kids have to run a computer,” McCary said. “And they were taught this is not an ag machine, an overhead valve engine is. We got really enamored with welders and glow plugs and tractors and then ignore other machines. I tell my students, we’re aggies, we tear machines apart and we fix them, quit acting like these machines aren’t yours and the diesels are.”
The precision agriculture program at NWKTC works with classic machines like tractors, but also computers, mapping technology, soil probes, tablets and more. McCary’s question is “why shouldn’t we?”
“It would be insane to go to a dentist today and get a cavity filled without getting an X-ray. We all go ‘I’m going to use this radiometric stuff to see inside my body.’ We like when it’s from space or when its the U.S. military overseas seeing inside buildings. We like being able to have our knees arthroscopically whatever so that its minimal impact,” he said. “But now it’s been resisted in ag, because it’s not traditional to go out and electromagnetism to map the soil. We literally are doing radiology on fields just like we do in deep space and in the human body.”
The precision agriculture program started at NWKTC in 2015, and students over those years haven’t just listened to McCary tell them what precision ag is, they’ve done it and seen it work. Last year the campus joined with the state’s Water Technology Farms Project, and began working with technology in farms around the area, and their own farm at the college.
“When we started this, we realized the only way to really give the students a real experience was to be in the field. You can’t just sit in there and read a book, not with ag,” McCary said.
“We went to some growers and asked ‘do you mind if we come out to your field and do soil samples or do this, do that?’ We even talked to some about setting aside sections of their fields for plots, and the people were very generous.”
Getting that technology into working fields also helps producers see how it can benefit them, as well as helping train the next generation of farmers and industry workers, who will either implement the technology on their own farms, install it or create it.
“You will be the bridge, as workers, between the technology and growers,” said Jonathan Aguilar, Kansas State University assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering, at the expo. “You’ll be the ones helping to manage it and maintain it.”
Precision agriculture has environmental benefits, such as limiting the amount of chemicals or water used on farms, because the amounts are variable, calculated and only applied in the quantity and area needed. But they also come with an economic benefit to producers, McCary said.
Before teaching, McCary worked in the engineering industry, and saw systems like guidance used on grading blades and more before the technology moved to the agricultural industry.
“Then low and behold we discovered that when you can drive a tractor in a straight line, using a GPS guideline, you aren’t double dosing areas of your field,” he said. “If you’re crossing over four feet here and four feet there, all the sudden it adds up to 40 acres of chemical you didn’t need to put down. I don’t care what industry you’re in, it’s the shrewd people that make money.”
He believes precision ag isn’t about buying the newest equipment, but simply doing what you can to run the business of feeding the world as efficiently as possible. And farming with as much information as possible.
It comes down to price point and what works for each producer.
“And it really comes down to showing them. When you put a tractor in front of a producer that’s 20 years old with guidance, and it can drive an exact straight line, and it’s the same model they have, they think ‘well I could do that,’” McCary said. “If we’re on our farm doing it, then they can go ‘oh i can do that too. Well how much did that cost? We can probably figure out how to do that.’”
It all comes back to McCary’s idea of motivating the head and the heart of current and future producers. That is the goal of not only the precision agriculture program at NWKTC, but also of events like the agricultural tech expo the college hosted with KARTA and the Water Tech Farms Project.
I want my students to be able to tell their families, their communities, and themselves, we do this because of this, not we do this because we always have,” McCary said. “When you can capture the head and the heart of your players, you can do anything.”