By Tim Leeds
Some Montana agriculture producers are experimenting with cutting-edge technology in their day-to-day activities, and they met at Montana State University-Northern Wednesday to explore using even more.
Carl Mattson of Chester, president of PARA (Precision Agricultural Research Association), said working with the agriculture department at MSU-Northern is a natural partnership.
"We're in Havre today to see what we can tie in with our work, to see what we have to offer Northern and what Northern has to offer us," he said.
He said the goal of precision agriculture is to use modern technology to maximize potential and quality and to minimize cost. He said members of his group are already using technology such as global positioning systems (GPS), yield monitoring data, and remote sensing data from NASA.
Since this is precisely the technology MSU-Northern teaches, the group is interested in seeing what it can do with the university, Mattson said. He said it has worked with MSU-Northern professor Tom Welch before.
"He's on the cutting edge," Mattson said.
He said the Northern Ag Research Station also does extensive research into this area, and PARA participants have work successfully with that team and the group hopes to work with Welch.
Mattson said the group uses site-specific agriculture. He said they research the needs and productivity of every part of a field to determine exactly what is needed as far as herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer, then adjust their application for each area of the field.
For example, Mattson said, they use topographical satellite photos to analyze the rainfall and runoff of a field. He said this way a farmer can know where the water collects in a field. Once you know where the water is, he said, you know the yield potential for each area of the field. He said once you know the yield potential, you know how to fertilize.
Mattson said they also use GPS in this process. A computer on the machinery is in contact with a satellite, he said, and knows exactly where the machinery is. The computer talking with a controller will then adjust the amount of fertilizer, herbicide or pesticide being applied to the exact amount needed at that location.
The same process is used when harvesting to determine the yield for every spot in a field, Mattson said. He said this information can then be used for future applications.
Mattson said the process can be summed up as placing the appropriate product on the right place at the right time in the right amount. He said many farmers have been wanting to use this approach for a long time, but were unable to relate their exact location with specific actions before. With the current technology, he said, now they can.
The original recommendations for amounts and types of fertilizers was for the entire state, Mattson said. He said this has progressively been broken down into smaller areas, first splitting the state into north and south sections, then into counties, then into individual farms within counties.
He said this eventually was broken down into recommendations for specific fields within farms, and the current technology allows computation for every part of every field.
Mattson said the idea of site-specific farming has been around for a while, but it has taken time to get the ideas and technology into use.
He said there are a number of groups similar to PARA across the country whose goal is to study and employ the techniques. He said PARA is unique, however, because it is not just farmers or researchers, but includes producers, researchers and representatives of industry. He said he doesn't know of any other organization where all groups involved come together as they do in PARA.