NORTH PLATTE, NE – While precision agriculture has become commonplace on the farm, ranchers have been slower to adopt new tools. Efforts to change that could make ranching more productive.
A ranching environment is different from a farming operation just in terms of lay of the land. Internet connectivity is also spotty but is improving. Learning how to implement the technology, capture it, and interpret it for production and economic use are all part of precision ranch agriculture.
Extension livestock specialists from three land grant universities; University of Nebraska, Montana State University and Oregon State University are using a 12,800 acre laboratory – a working ranch in the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills – to study precision livestock management on rangelands. The Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory
Large energy costs have led to an increase in expenses on ranches such as land, feed and labor, according to Travis Mulliniks with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Ranch management can be difficult, but it’s impossible without data and information. Knowledge is power.”
Mulliniks says there’s been a significant increase in virtual fences in the last five years. “I can now rotational graze or target graze pastures with virtual fence, very similar to a lot of dog owners who have virtual fences for their dogs in their yards,” he explains. He tells Brownfield Ag News it reduces labor and maintenance costs and is safe and effective for cows.
More examples are ranchers who can monitor watering sites with remote cameras and drones or check daily weights with walk-over weighing systems and imaging/camera systems.
According to Mulliniks, it’s important for these technologies to be cost-effective, flexible, reliable and provide the opportunity for continuous improvement so that information is available for ranchers to make meaningful management decisions.
The most pressing issue is reliable internet service. “Connectivity will either drive the embrace of technologies from the ranching side or it will not allow the use of technologies on that side of ag,” Mulliniks said.
In many rural areas of South Dakota, the lack of broadband is significant. Half of the counties have rural areas where one in four people don’t have adequate Internet access. Some counties have rural areas where half the residents don’t have reliable access.
Closing the broadband gap is expensive. Fiber optic line can cost $15,000 per mile to lay, and the low number of customers in some rural areas makes it too expensive for companies to justify their investment.
In 2020, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provided a $3.3 million grant to help SDN Communications deploy fixed wireless broadband in rural areas of Pennington and Lawrence counties in South Dakota. This service area extends across 13 square miles and will provide broadband access to 275 people, 14 businesses and two agriculture operations . In addition, over 1,500 people spanning five counties in South Dakota were scheduled to be connected to broadband internet thanks to another investment of $5.5 million from the USDA
In 2021, USDA begun accepting applications for up to $1.15 billion in loans and grants to help people in rural areas get access to high-speed internet. It comes on the heels of the recently enacted Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which provides another nearly $2 billion in additional funding for the ReConnect program.
“High-speed internet is the new electricity,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “It must be reliable, affordable and available to everyone. The funding USDA is making available – through the current application process and through the nearly $2 billion in additional funding that will be provided for this program by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law – will go a long way toward reaching this goal in rural America.”