Bryan Horwath, Published December 30 2013
ND ag official: Drones have 'unlimited potential' in farming, ranching
Speaking for the first time publicly on the topic, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said the use of unmanned aerial vehicles could eventually change the way growers approach the business of farming – and he said the shift could come sooner rather than later.
“In the last five years, ever since I’ve stepped into office, I’ve been contacted by and worked with four different companies about UAVs and their potential,” said Goehring during an interview earlier this month. “The use of UAVs is being discussed on many different scales. There is unlimited potential.”
Though drones are already being used by some farmers, mostly to monitor their acreage, Goehring said UAVs could be on the verge of being used on a wider scale for advanced disease detection, pest mitigation, crop mapping and to develop complex algorithms, all in an effort to maximize yields and improve productivity.
For example, Goehring said, many people don’t know that corn has the genetic potential to produce 600 bushels per acre or that soybeans have the potential to produce 200 bushels per acre.
This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates corn yields to average about 155 bushels per acre and soybeans to yield 41 bushels per acre.
“There are so many variables that can affect a crop’s ability to produce to its potential,” Goehring said. “Some of it is not in our control, but some are, and our ability to micromanage a crop can squeeze more and more yield out of a crop and help us to manage resources better.”
North Dakota Farmers Union Staff Executive Director Dane Braun said the use of drones will offer advantages to growers and ranchers alike.
“Farmers will be able to take imagery of crops to detect nutrient deficiencies and diseases,” Braun stated. “Ranchers will be able to take imagery of their livestock to check on their well-being and location. Most people think this is futuristic, but we think it is coming sooner than most people expect. Originally, we believed that drone experts would be coming out to the farmers’ fields to operate the drones, but now we think farmers and ranchers will be able to manage drones themselves.”
Though the technology and expertise could soon be there on a large scale, Braun said there is concern about federal regulations in the area of UAVs being used in agriculture.
“Our biggest challenge is the Federal Aviation Administration,” Braun said. “The FAA has not set policy on UAVs and has prevented commercial use of them at this time.”
North Dakota Farm Bureau President Doyle Johannes said he’s not ready to make the statement that the use of drones will revolutionize farming, but he said the possibilities are exciting, though he’s also heard from some farmers who are not sold on the use of drones.
“This is certainly going to be a key to help make us more efficient,” Johannes said. “Instead of the mass treatment of an entire area, this is going to allow us to be more targeted in the application of things like fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. This is going to be a real tool to help.”
On the heels of the recent controversy in America over the perception by some that the country’s ability to spy on citizens has been exposed as intrusive, Johannes said some farmers worry a drone in the wrong hands could cause major problems for growers and ranchers.