Alabama Extension introduces new precision farming technology

Since May 16, life has gotten easier for the growing number of Alabama farmers who are adopting precision agriculture methods to maintain their competitive edge in an increasingly global farming economy.

That's when precision agriculture experts with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Auburn University's Biosystems Engineering Department dedicated a Continuously Operating Reference Station (CORS) at the R.A. Hubbard High School in Courtland.

Farmers understand that surviving in a global economy will require cutting operating costs even further — a factor that led many of them to precision agriculture methods, a technology that uses a global positioning system (GPS) to provide farmers with pin-point accuracy for applications such as planting, spraying and harvesting. In fact, the accuracy of this technology has enabled producers to greatly reduce the amount of fertilizer, seed, plant growth regulators and insecticides — reductions that improve their financial bottom line and aid the environment. Some producers also report savings in time and labor costs.

Accuracy is critical to the success of this technology — the reason why precision farming experts are so excited about the utilization of CORS in north Alabama and ultimately the rest of the state.

Coordinated by the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), CORS sites provide GPS measurements in support of three-dimensional positioning activities. CORS will provide farmers with even greater accuracy than what is currently being used. For example, a tractor equipped with an Internet-accessible cellular modem could receive round-the-clock continuous data using a CORS.

“The nice thing about CORS is that NGS maintains data for these sites, which are checked every 24 hours for accuracy,” says Shannon Norwood, an Extension precision agriculture agent who also played a critical role securing funding for this station.

Until recently, north Alabama farmers have used base stations that provide only a six-mile coverage radius at a cost of roughly $12,000 a station. These stations also required line-of-site transmission, which involves relocation from time to time — which, for farmers, means more time and expense better spent elsewhere.

One key advantage associated with a CORS is that it provides extended range with no line-of-sight requirements.

“We're getting four to five times the range with the CORS that we do with traditional base stations,” says Amy Winstead, another Extension precision farming agent who also was instrumental in securing funding for the technology.

At a cost of only $25,000, the station not only is benefiting farmers but also numerous other professionals who now use global positioning receivers as a routine part of their work.

“It's not just for agriculture,” Norwood says. “The surveying and construction industry as well as the Department of Transportation routinely use CORS for accurate positioning.”

Both Norwood and Winstead believe the accuracy and convenience associated with CORS offers other advantages.

The enhanced accuracy associated with CORS better insures that farm equipment remains on the same track during each pass through the field — a factor that greatly reduces the recurrent problem of soil compaction, which is another expense farmers prefer to avoid.

CORS also may prove to be a major asset for farmers confronted with a major weather calamity, such as an early spring freeze when they are forced to replant or an autumn hurricane when they must run their harvesters night and day to beat the storm.

The Courtland CORS, which is the first widespread use of this technology by farmers, is the result of a pilot project initially spearheaded by Norwood and Winstead to promote CORS for agriculture use. But Winstead says the entire effort wouldn't have been possible without local growers.

“If it had not been for the enthusiastic initiative and support of Lawrence County growers, this project would not have been possible,” she says.

Nine Lawrence County farmers pooled resources to provide funding for the station while the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) provided in-kind support. Funding for the CORS equipment from ALDOT was a result of a partnership with the Alabama Department of Revenue (ADOR). U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer and U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby were instrumental in providing funding to ADOR for these activities through the Alabama Height Modernization Grant, administered through NOAA.

Other partners include the Lawrence County Board of Education, the Wheat and Feed Grain Committee and the Alabama Cotton Commission.

Working with the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) and other partners, Extension ultimately hopes to develop a CORS network for farmers which will cover the entire state.

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