Commercial agriculture ten years from now likely will resemble farms depicted in futuristic fiction more than it does the nostalgic memories folks have of farming just 25 or 30 years ago.
Within the next decade, producers can expect to use tractors that drive themselves; sprayers, combines and planters that perform their duties autonomously; and genetic improvements that make plants more efficient and tolerant of numerous stresses, including drought, heat, insects and diseases. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will provide real-time information to help farmers make management decisions on fertility, pest control, irrigation and other in-season factors.
Adopting technology will be necessary, says Bob Avant, program director at Texas A&M AgriLife Research, to meet the food and fiber demand of a growing population and do so with less land and water.
“Trends over the next ten years will be driven by a population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050,” Avant said during the opening session of the Texas Plant Protection Association’s 28th annual conference held Dec. 6-7 in Bryan.
Other factors underlying the necessity to adopt technology, Avant says, include an aging farm population (about 60 years), availability and cost of land, and a new generation of farmers with a different attitude.
He says farms will be larger and more efficient, a necessity with an expected increase in production costs and a tightening of profit margins. He expects to see “different ownership models for equipment and more partnering operations.” More producers will switch to reduced tillage systems.
Avant says genetics, which have made unprecedented advances over the past two decades, will continue to alter the way we farm. He says targets for plant breeders will include fiber improvements in cotton, and high oleic and improved nutrition in corn. Many crops will benefit from increased stress tolerance. Farmers will reevaluate how they use inputs and will adopt time release fertilizers, endophytes and microbes. Genetics research will identify new varieties with improved water use and nutrient efficiency, increased tolerance to insects and diseases and with better options for weed control. Weed management, to avoid herbicide resistance, he says, will be a focus. “Single plant management,” will be a factor. Targeted and integrated management will be crucial.
“Agriculture will adopt more systems approaches,” Avant says, “with equipment and information systems and with new genomic traits.”
UAVs will play increasingly important roles on future farms, and will offer new challenges for plant breeders who will need to look at issues such as plant height, as well as yield potential. “UAVs will support farm decision-making,” Avant says. “They will detect plant stress, insect activity, weed pressure and will help producers target applications as needed.”
UAVs offer opportunities for animal agriculture by providing real-time observations of herd location and herd health.
Big data will drive many farm management decisions, Avant says. “Basically everything that is done on a farm today generates big data, and that valuable intellectual property could be jointly owned—by equipment companies, suppliers and producers. Managers will need more (data) storage capacity and new processing systems. The data must be merged and managed,” he says, to improve decision making.
Accumulating, storing and using data comes with new, sometimes complex, challenges. “The data must be managed,” Avant says. “Issues include the validity and consistency of the information. Release of confidential information also creates concern.
The information is valuable property, so evaluating the value will be a challenge, as will liability if a farmer’s information is inadvertently released.
“Farmers do not want to be IT managers,” he adds. Consequently, trusted entities, including commodity associations, ag supply companies, and companies created specifically to manage data are possible partners.
In ten years, Avant says, modern agriculture will embrace such trends as autonomous equipment, smart equipment, remote sensing by satellite or aircraft, UAVs for sensing and application, advanced sensor systems, new crop traits to increase efficiency and nutrition, big iron to small iron, reduced field operations, precision/prescription applications (variable rate technology), attention to soil health (microbes, endophytes, and bacteriophages), and Big Data.
By 2026, agriculture will be in a brave new world that requires a new approach to production, planning and management. It will also require new attitudes on how to collect, store and use data to increase efficiency. Technology offers significant opportunities to the next generation of farmers.