Colorado State University Leads Program of the Future with Marriage of Space Technology and Farming

If the Jetsons were farmers, they’d be using information technology to optimize production, the same techniques that Colorado State University is beginning to offer as a degree concentration within the College of Agricultural Sciences. Colorado State is the first university in the West to offer such an opportunity to students.

Information technology, as it is applied to agriculture, takes space technology such as satellite images used for years by the military and turns it into a tool that allows farmers and ranchers to raise more food while better protecting the environment.

"This means that farmers can control chemical use, reduce groundwater contamination and water run-off, optimize their yield and investigate any number of aspects of small plots within a field," said Raj Khosla, Colorado State professor and Cooperative Extension agronomist. "The technology is there, but not many people are trained to help farmers use it. Our program trains the next generation of students to use this technology and help farmers apply it to their specific needs."

The program teaches students a blend of state-of-the-art satellite image technology, computer applications and agricultural research. The application of this technology, called precision agriculture, is just that – it allows farmers to break down and meet the specific fertilizer and water needs, seed quota and insect and disease control measures for areas as small as a few square feet within a field.

"This technology revolutionizes agriculture and reaps environmental and economic benefits for farmers and society," said Khosla, who is the leading faculty member of the new degree concentration program. "By allowing farmers to pinpoint small areas within a field and to precisely formulate how that plot should be managed – including how much fertilizer should be applied, how many seeds the soil will support in that area, how much water is needed and how much water is too much – farmers can essentially write a prescription for each small section of a field."

The technology used in precision farming includes Global Positioning Systems and Geographical Information Systems. GPS systems provide geographical location information and GIS systems organize information into a map. The combination of these systems along with other technology, such as remote sensing, organizes 3-D details about the soil types, geographical variations in a field and the health of plants in each section of a field.

In fact, the technology is so advanced in its ability to pinpoint small areas of a field and reveal specific information about it that Khosla often demonstrates how well it works by scattering pocket change in a satellite-mapped field, then sending students out to find the change. The students are armed only with a hand-held computer loaded with the technology.

The technology is becoming critical to farmers because previous advancements have allowed average farm sizes to become several thousand acres. The scope of land that farmers must monitor for specific problems or needs, such as disease and insects, is difficult to cover on foot.

The 120-hour concentration will graduate its first students within 18 months. The program will emphasize research and application. In addition to the new degree program, a comprehensive, three-year precision agriculture research study is funded through the Colorado State College of Agricultural Sciences by a $1 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. The study includes researchers and Cooperative Extension specialists at Colorado State, U.S. Department of Agriculture – Agriculture Research Service scientists, farmers and consultants.