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Regional Spotlight: Northeast Plains

posted May 19, 2014, 12:48 PM by Megan Chadwick Gernert - OIT   [ updated May 19, 2014, 12:48 PM ]

The Northeast Plains is a six county region consisting of Logan, Morgan, Phillips, Sedgwick, Washington and Yuma Counties. It is primarily a rural agricultural area with employment in the Food and Agriculture industry outnumbering all other key industries nearly three to one.  In the process of creating Colorado Blueprint, local economic development specialists identified telecommunications as a focus area for improving the quality of life in the region.  The goal stated in the regional blueprint is to “keep broadband infrastructure a priority for the region”.

In order to identify and understand the complex issues related to broadband, the Northeast Colorado Association of Local Governments (NECALG) is considering the development a Regional Strategic Plan for Broadband.  NECALG is currently in the early stage of this process and has recently released a Request for Proposals for the project.

While the region as a whole is just getting started, one of the counties within the region has been tackling this issue for the past year:

Yuma County

In the spring of 2013 the Yuma County Economic Development Corporation asked local businesses about the biggest challenges of doing business in Yuma County.  The most frequent answer to this question involved internet service.  Comments included concerns about speed, reliability and affordability of existing service and future needs.  

These comments came from a broad scope of folks from Main Street to the Industrial Parks.  A local business that had begun construction to expand their business and add several positions canceled the project because their existing broadband service could not sustain their present workload, let alone adding new employees. The Main Street insurance agents complained that they were not able to give quotes, submit claims, or do any kind of business when the internet was down.  The local banks are unable to cash checks without online account access.

Yuma County’s economy is all about agriculture.  We refer to it as “Agriculture on Steroids.”  The future of farming is here now with technology playing a huge role in being efficient with planting techniques, use of chemicals, and water.  Irrigation sprinklers are controlled via Smart Phones and precision farming techniques can pinpoint where to put a seed or fertilizer.  But huge amounts of bandwidth are necessary to make all of this work.  If we are to be efficient, productive and competitive in the very near future, better broadband is required.

The demand for broadband in our schools and hospitals is growing exponentially.  Mandated testing and reporting to the state and federal agencies for our school districts will require unprecedented upload capacities. And in order to provide the best possible healthcare in rural areas, our hospitals must be able to communicate and use the resources of our urban neighbors.

Residential areas are also a concern.  In order to attract qualified professionals from other parts of the state that are used to fast and affordable speeds….well, it’s a challenge to keep them in the area without the speeds and prices that they enjoyed elsewhere.

In September 2013, as conversations continued on the broadband topic, a Task Force was created of concerned individuals that include internet providers, local business people, representatives from education and healthcare, as well as county, state, and city officials.  Regional folks who are interested in being a part of the solution or seeing how these efforts may benefit their area have attended regularly.  The efforts and conversations of the Task Force have seen much diversity, covering topics such as infrastructure, funding, planning, legislation updates, and creating a broadband-friendly environment.

The Task Force has undertaken a number of steps to assess the broadband environment in Yuma County.  These steps include determining broadband needs, seeking expertise, assessing infrastructure, and assisting providers.

In order to determine Yuma County’s broadband needs, the Task Force utilized a broadband survey, which was distributed in a variety of ways including utility bills, Chamber e-mail blasts, websites, and press releases in newspapers. With the expertise of a consultant hired by YCEDC, the Task Force has begun the process of creating a map of broadband infrastructure in Yuma County and working with the local providers. This infrastructure can come in various forms including fiber, copper fiber and towers, but locating assets is a difficult 
process because much of the information is not public or is considered to be proprietary.  Identifying these assets is crucial in moving forward to expand service efficiently. In order to further understand the gaps in infrastructure and the challenges of providing service, one-on-one interviews were held with each company that provides or is interested in providing service in Yuma County.  

As a result of all of these efforts, the Task Force has created a website (Yuma County Connect) to promote communication regarding the needs of businesses, residents, and providers.  They have also identified several goals including short-term and long-term projects.  The present challenge as they move into an increasingly technical phase of improving broadband services is to procure funding sources that will enable them to continue to engage consulting assistance and engineering input on proposed projects.

Find out more about the Yuma County Broadband Task Force here.


Precision Agriculture

Precision agriculture is the practice of using advanced technologies such as GPS (Global Positioning Systems), GIS (Geographic Information Systems), and Remote Sensing to improve crop productivity, input use efficiency, profitability, and sustainability of agriculture. Precision agriculture has been in use for over 20 years and is continually improving with advances in the related technologies.

The main concept behind precision agriculture is to address variability in the landscape and manage crops accordingly. In traditional agriculture practice, a field is managed uniformly based on the average productivity of that field. For example, if a field produces 150 bushels of corn on average, the farmer will use that information to determine the amount and timing of nitrogen application. This method does not take into consideration the variability that may exist in the field. In this example, sections of the field may produce 100 bushels, while other sections may produce 200 bushels – applying nitrogen uniformly means that parts of the field will be over- or under- applied. Knowledge of the location of these variations can lead to more efficient and effective management of the crops, thus maximizing the overall yield and input use efficiency.

The goal of this process can be described by five “R’s”. It is about the application of the Right Input, at the Right Location, in the Right Amount, at the Right Time, and in the Right Manner.

So how does it work?

Collecting the Data

Variability in crops must be measured and mapped in order to determine the proper prescription for the crops. Data collection techniques range from sensors on the ground to satellites. The key technologies used are GPS, GIS, and Remote Sensing. Accuracy of the GPS is fundamental to these operations – for example, the GPS in a common cell phone or car navigation system has an accuracy of approximately 15 feet or more. The GPS used in precision farming practices such as auto-pilot systems has an accuracy of less than 1 inch. GPS helps both guide equipment through fields as well as to geographically reference data collected by sensors. In fact, agriculture is one of the largest consumers of high resolution GPS services in the country.

Sensors can be either mobile or stationary. Stationary sensors can be placed in strategic locations to measure soil moisture content and help monitor the watering systems in real-time. This method requires the ability to remotely access the sensor data. Mobile sensors can be attached to equipment to take measurements as the machine moves through the field. For instance, as a combine moves through a field, sensors on the machine have the capability to weigh the crop, calculate the area, and sense the moisture content of the crop every second. These measurements are used together with GPS to create digital yield map that can be transmitted wirelessly to the farmer in real-time. The sensor data can also be utilized instantly. Sensors mounted on the front of a fertilizer sprayer can take measurements of the crop health and vigor, and – within the 3 to 4 seconds before the back of the machine passes over the same spot – an algorithm is used to determine and execute the correct amount of the nutrients to be applied at that location.

Remote Sensing uses imagery from satellites, airplanes, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to produce precise maps of crop characteristics including soil type and moisture content. The aerial imagery can also show evidence of past productivity and help predict future potential.

Utilizing the Data

GIS is used to compile and analyze the collected data. Farmers will often work with crop practitioners or consultants to create an appropriate “prescription” for the crops. This process allows the farmer to determine and practice the five “R’s”.

With the right resources, a farmer can be connected to every aspect of the farm. They can turn on sprinklers from a smartphone, they can track equipment, and they can even collect, analyze and share data. Tractors equipped with the right technology can even drive themselves! These advanced technologies allow farmers to better understand and to more efficiently manage their crops. Increased productivity and more efficient use of resources help drive profitability and sustainability of the farm.

More Information

The precision agriculture information in this article was collected by interview with Dr. Raj Khosla.  Dr. Khosla is a Professor of Precision Agriculture at Colorado State University (CSU).  He has developed and is the director of a unique undergraduate program at CSU called “Applied Information Technology in Agriculture”.

For more information, please visit the CSU Precision Agriculture Program website.


The Business of Precision Agriculture

FarmReign is a precision agriculture company based in Wray, Colorado that provides precision farming services, consultation, training, and information for the agricultural industry. FarmReign assists farmers in technology decision making, data analytics, and developing crop prescriptions. According to Luke Cure of FarmReign, farms are getting bigger and more efficient and these tools are helping them make decisions. He says it’s exciting to be part of the process of leveraging these new tools to the farmer.
http://www.farmreign.com/

Precision agriculture has a plethora of technology options and the first hurdle for any farmer is to make the best investment and technology decisions. FarmReign helps the farmer decide which technologies will bring about the largest improvements for the investments. The technology must help the farmer become more efficient without adding to their workload.

FarmReign is always looking for the right data sets to create the right crop prescription. They typically rely on the farmer to supply the necessary data. This most often includes “end of year” data sets, such as yield data and remote sensing data sets from various sources. Ideally, they could collect more “in-season data” to measure the variations throughout the growing season, but are limited by the client’s equipment and ability to collect the data. Using this data, they can help create a concise prescription.

Many of FarmReign’s services rely heavily on the ability to store and share large data sets. For example, data from one farm for a single year’s planting could contain 375 million data points – each data point contains dozens of attributes. As more data is collected and utilized, we will need to be able to manage these large data sets and share the data in real-time. Ubiquitous broadband is an important piece in growing that ability.

For more information about FarmReign, please visit the www.farmreign.com.