Sunday 4 March 2012

Application of Precision Agriculture in the Developing countries

By Dr. Mohammed Sa’id Berigari, Senior Soil Scientist, USA, 03/03/2012.

There is great emphasis on applying inputs in the right amounts, at the right times, and right places where precision agriculture seems to offer a natural solution to these problems facing farmers in the developing countries.  The developing nations use 60 to 70% of the world’s fertilizers yet farmers in these countries often do not know the exact nutrient status of their soils. Global nitrogen use efficiency runs around 40%, and water use definitely needs optimization especially in many counties in Asia and Africa where drought is alarmingly expanding.  Most importantly, many countries are struggling with low, stagnating, or even declining crop yields, something that precision agriculture technology can promise to boost.

What seems clear-cut in theory can be profoundly tricky in reality, as Professor Raj Khosla at Colorado State University began to realize five years ago.  Khosla admits that precision agriculture in the United States, Europe, and Australia is carried out in fields that are 4.0 to 40.0- hectares in area, whereas farms in China, India, and many other countries in Asia and Africa are often 2.0- hectares or even less in size.  Furthermore, conventional precision farming requires mechanization, big equipment, and sophisticated technology-tools that are far beyond the reach of smallholder farmers.

Nonetheless, research in precision agriculture is expanding in the developing world today.  Thanks to pioneering task at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) as well as scientists like Khosla, who joined the international effort more recently.  The first symposium of the new ASA Precision Agriculture System Community held during last year’s (2011) ASA, CSSA, and SSSA Annual Meetings in San Antonio, California included some papers with a global focus.  Few years earlier, Khosla helped launch the International Society of Precision Agriculture to promote the emerging science.  And his research  with coworkers in China, Colorado, and India convinced him that “precision agriculture can be practiced on most fields, most farms, and most places on this planet”  he said,” but that it can also deliver on its promise to improve profitability, increase yields, and foster food security worldwide”.
“I’m not proposing that precision ag is the only solution,” Khosla said in a talk at the Annual Meeting last fall.  “But I’m a strong believer that it’s part of the solution.”

Other scientists are not so sure.  But even those who agree know that introducing this technology to the poorest, least developed countries means following uncertain path.
According to Bruce Erickson, a Purdue University Precision Farming Expert and ASA’s Agronomic Education Manager “you have to completely reset your thinking about what precision agriculture is on a farm”,

Relatively New Discipline
Precision agriculture is still relatively new even in the United States.  Its modern application really  began in the 1990’s when global positioning system (GPS) first became available for civilian use.  Once this occurred, GPS technology for farm equipment rapidly emerged, allowing farmers to map their fields in great details and apply inputs in precise quantities and locations using variable rate technology (VRT).  Soon after that, yield monitors linked to GPS began to show wide variability within individual farms while light bars and autoguidance helped farmers steer their equipment precisely thus minimize overlapping applications of expensive seed, fertilizers, and pesticides. Sensors have been developed most recently to rapidly assess the nutrient levels in soils and plants.

Khosla pointed out that these high –tech advances, precision agriculture has become synonymous with modern technology and large operations in many people’s minds.  However, the basic principles are actually independent of both technology and scale and go back decades according to Khosla.  What precision agriculture is really about is simply site specific farming.  The concept that natural variability in soils, microclimates, plants, and other factors will respond better to customized, location–specific management than to treat every part of a field the same way.  And by tailoring inputs of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and water to the specific conditions within their fields, farmers can reduce costs, improve profitability, and increase yields.
 According to the Purdue University Agricultural-Economist Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer, scientists conducting research in the developing countries have focused on this broader concept of precision agriculture for an important reason. He stated that when farmers are illiterate, lack capital resources, and cultivate fields of only 0.50-1.0-hectare by hand, the wholesale transfer of North American precision technologies won’t succeed. For example in Niger, West Africa where Lowenberg Deboer has worked extensively, the most advanced farmers” were the ones who were using bullocks or donkeys rather than doing everything by hand”  And how do you put GPS on your bullock?”

Applying New Technology to Local Conditions
According to Newell Kitchen, a USDA-ARS Soil Scientist, technology is a crucial part of the solution; after all, advances like GPS are what made precision agriculture practical for farmers in the first place.  Therefore, the point is not to disregard existing technologies completely, but to adapt them to the farming practices, economic conditions and culture of each country. “With the technology at hand, we tend to ask, well, what can we do with this? So it becomes very exploratory.”

For example, farmers in Africa and most Asia in general lack even the most basic information about the fertility of their fields.  However, pulling soil cores and sending them to a laboratory for analysis is not an option because laboratory facilities do not exist.  One solution to the problem, said Lowenberg-DeBoen, would be to provide local agro-dealers or extension offices with battery operated, table-top soil testers, to which farmers could bring a composite soil sample  and get a sheet of simple nutrient recommendations in return.  Another would be to use field sensors, such as plant chlorophyll (or related parameters) to estimate nitrogen status of any given location.
The work of Kitchen and others has shown that when tractor-mounted chlorophyll sensors are used to guide application of nitrogen fertilizer during the growing season, nitrogen use efficiency can increase up to 60%.  The cost of the sensors at $10,000 is a real drawback, and they may not return enough to make the investment worth it, even for some US farmers.  Few years ago, researcher at Oklahoma State University decided to invent a more affordable version.  They came up with a handheld device called “the Pocket Sensor” which has only an operating button, a display window for the readings, and two leveling tools-a length of a string and a bubble level-for keeping the sensor at the right height and angle above the crop.  Its use is very simple.  An operator holds the sensor over a row of plants and takes readings as he or she walks along.

The design may be minimal, but the Pocket Sensor seems to perform as well as more expensive sophisticated technology. Jared Crain a graduate student of Plant and Soil Science at Oklahoma State University worked in Mexico with researchers of International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, CIMMYT( acronym in Spanish), in 2010 and 2011,  and found high correlations between measurements taken with the Pocket Sensor and a commercial sensor, the Green Seeker, in both wheat and corn fields.  The results supported well the group’s ultimate goal, which is getting the technology into the hands of people worldwide to improve nitrogen efficiency.   A smallholder farmer can identify field locations where the soil or vegetation looks different, and could take sensor readings of each zone and make a map showing where to add nitrogen in small, medium, and large amounts i.e. according to the soil nutrient requirement of each location.  “If this does not sound terribly precise, it is definitely a step up from what many farmers do now”, Kitchen said which is to apply fertilizer indiscriminately across their fields.

Precision Leveling Leads to:  Increased Yields, Conserved Water
Khosla, meanwhile, was working with researcher in India on nutrient and water efficiency.  Many fields across the country are flood-irrigated, he explained; when irrigation water is available in canals, farmers simply open the flood gates and let water run across the land.  However, the fields are so uneven that certain areas become waterlogged while others drain too rapidly leading in both cases to wasted water and nutrients and reduced grain yields.  Assuming that precision farming techniques might improve the conditions, Khosa and other scientists from CIMMYT and IRRI conducted a study at an experimental farm on the Indo-Gangetic Plains of India, where irrigation and other uses are currently depleting groundwater by 13 to 17 km3 a year.  The method they used was precision laser leveling.  In this approach, a laser beam is shot across a field, giving farmers a stable reference point to use as they level out bumps and valleys in the land.  In this study laser leveling combined with another technique for increasing water use efficiency, raised-bed planting, and produced an average of 17% increase of grain than traditional farming practices.  Moreover, the new practice led to 50% savings in irrigation water, with laser alone reducing water use by one third.  That is due to water distribution more evenly.  The practice resulted in good seed germination and crop development even with less overall irrigation water.

Khosla was so pleased with the results of joint work that he persuaded his collaborators at the Delhi-based  company Tata Chemicals to conduct an on-farm study with two objectives: to repeat the findings and demonstrate a model for offering agriculture services to Indian farmers.  In 2011, the company collaborated with a wheat grower in north-western Uttar Pradesh to laser-level his farms, apply balanced fertilization based on few soil tests, and schedule irrigation at the right times.   Khosla reported that the farmer produced 2.0 tons of wheat per hectare before these interventions and afterward, the yield jumped nearly 200% to 5.6 tons per hectare.   Khosla stated that the farmer was so excited that he applied for a micro-loan, bought his own precision leveler, and began offering precision leveling as a service to others.

Leveraging Mobile Phone Technology
Most farmers in the developing world do not own yield monitors or GPS systems, but they often have mobile phones.  In Africa, for example, “it is surprising: said Jess Lowenberg-DeBoen with ties to Niger, West Africa.  “People who you think don’t have enough to eat have cell phones”

As an outcome, agriculture scientists and public health officials have been brainstorming means to leverage the technology; for example, to warn farmers about storm’s approach or swarming locusts or to gather health information from people in remote areas.  But in one area, at least, ideas like these are giving tangible solutions, thanks to work of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Center (IRRI).
For more than a decade, a team led by IRRI deputy director general for research Achim Doberman has been investigating ways to introduce precision agriculture techniques to small farms in Asia, where 90% of the world’s rice is grown.  The solution they found and tested widely is called “site –specific nutrient management (SSNM)”, a simple form of precision agriculture that adapts nitrogen application to local farm conditions and balances them with phosphorus and potassium inputs.  In several studies, Doberman and his team demonstrated SSNM’S capacity to increase yields, nutrient use efficiency, and profits.  The next hurdle arose:  Bringing SSNM to Asian smallholder farmers.   The IRRI senior scientist Roland Buresh at the ASA, CSSA, and SSSA Annual Meeting last fall described how the group first tried to disseminate SSNM recommendation in print form.  However, the materials quickly became too complex, due to the diversity in farm practices and conditions that required to be accounted for.  Three years ago, the team developed a software program that asks farmers nearly a dozen questions, makes some computations, and then delivers tailored nutrient management practice.  After distributing it on CD for a time, they offered the program via web, smart phone, and regular mobile phones.

Farmers in Philippines can access it with a simple mobile phone, for instance, by calling a toll free number that connects them to an interactive voice response system supplied by Philippines Telecomm Company.  Once they press the appropriate buttons to answer questions about their farm practices:  the rice variety they plant, how they manage crop residues, then the information travels to a cloud-based server.  Then SSNM computations are performed, and the recommendations travel back as a text message in minutes to the farmers.

The system now is used across the Philippines and would be used soon in Indonesia, Bangladesh, parts of India and China, and West Africa.  Meantime, the team is taking the next step:  building a broader “crop manager” system that will provide nutrient recommendation, also advice on land preparation, weed control and other management topics, as well as access to credit, insurance, and other financial advices.

Buresh said” We started with fertilizers because fertilizers account for about 20% of the input costs for rice farmers, but rice farmers need more than just fertilizer advice”.
  Big-Farm Technologies Will Continue to Play Important Roles
It is very encouraging to see how other precision farming techniques are now reaching large number of smallholder farmers across Asia and Africa.  Still, if these practices are actually going to help alleviate hunger in the world, the large, mechanized farms that also exist in some developing nations could not be ignored, cautions Erickson.  In both Brazil and Argentina, farms can exceed North American farms in size, thus, generating economies that make purchasing big equipment and sophisticated technology both feasible and profitable.  Yield mapping, for example, which requires installing both GPS systems and yield monitors on combines is quite popular with some farmers in these countries, Erickson said.  Because labor is so cheap, he explains, the land-owning “farmer’ is often not the one who works the land, and thus relies heavily on data to track farm conditions and output.

“So, precision farming applications will come a lot quicker on these bigger, more mechanized farms,” Erickson said” There ‘s just a more natural fit, and there’s still quite a bit of room to grow, even now”
Wherever precision farming takes place, it will need all the normal supports to flourish:  networks of agriculture retailers and service providers, training opportunities, industry backing, and money.  But the more immediate need, emphasized by scientists like Khosla, is more people who are willing to engage in what can be challenging research efforts.

According to Khosla even when a technology proves valuable, an often forgotten link is integrating it into the existing farming methods and means of doing business of different countries.  Erickson stated “it takes people to implement new farming practices”.

Extent of Variability on Smallholder Farms
Khosla stated that “on a more basic level, many scientists remain skeptical that enough variability exists in small fields to try precision agriculture in the first place.”  However, data is rapidly mounting that show otherwise.  In a study in China that Khosla participated, for instance, winter wheat yields ranged from less than 2.0- tons per hectare to more than 5.0 -tons per hectare, even though farm fields were just 1.5- 7.0- hectares in size.  Kitchen observed the same thing in Korea.  “ Some of the results I have seen suggest that the range of variability in rice yields in their small fields is not too unlike the range we have in our grain crop yields in the U.S.” , he said, “even though our fields are in the order of 50 to 100 times larger.”

Making smallholder farmers to recognize this variability is key not only to helping them achieve higher yields and profitability, but to become better managers of the environment as well.  As of now the world’s two biggest users of fertilizer are farmers of China and India who have little way of knowing where and when they have met crops need or where and when excess fertilizers are polluting the environment.
 The recognition that the variability that exists on the surface of the globe is oftentimes just as great within one field as it is between fields that are hundred miles apart.  And such knowledge of how this variability is portrayed on the landscape is extremely valuable for best ways to manage the landscape.

Madeline Fisher (2012) Precision Ag in the Developing World. Crop Science Society of America, Soil Science Society of America, and American Society of Agronomy (CSA) Magazine. February 2012 Issue: 4-9.
Dear Dr.Talib:
I told you yesterday that I would send you an important article about agriculture. The article deals with the current state of the art worldwide on application of precision agriculture and its role in both the highly industrialized world as well as in the developing world where we are now more concerned to increase crop yields, conserve water, increase the efficiency of fertilizers and pesticide use, and profitability.
I strongly believe that the Kurdistan Region of Iraq needs long term planning and investment in agriculture for self- sufficiency in the strategic and essential plant and animal products in order to meet the demand of its current population and of the foreseeable generations to come. Some of the policy makers of KRG may believe in leaving the agriculture sector entirely to the private sector. However, even in the USA where market economy is the name of the game, both the Federal and State Governments participate in planning the long term objective of self -sufficiency in agricultural products as well as the production of surplus for exports. Therefore, KRG should strive to achieve self-sufficiency in all the essential plant and animal products for its population otherwise its very existence as an autonomous state will be at stake.
Cordial regards;
Your brother
 Mohammed Sa'id
N.B. would like to thank Dr Mohammed Sa’id, USA, for his valuable contributions to the site. In the mid 1970s a group of Kurdish agriculturists congregated in Libya as they had nowhere else to go. The group consisted of Dr Mohammed, he was a  soil scientist working with the Libyan agriculture research institute in Tripoli, Dr Jamal Fuoad a wheat production specialist who used to work with the FAO(UN) in Libya, the late Dr Kamal Khowashnaw who  was an expert working with a Yugoslave agriculture company and myself an Asst. Prof in Tripoli University. Even then we had our dreams for Kurdistan Agriculture and yet 38 years down the road I do not think any of our hopes have been realised but rather that things are now worse. The next  and the current generations of agriculturists and veterinarians will need to work hard as agriculture and food security are no less important than our national security.
Talib Murad - Hawler
4th,March 2012

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