By Steve White, Grand Island Bureau Chief - bio | email
Planting season looms in the midst of an unprecedented drought. The latest map out Thursday shows no sign of improvement.
In light of that, more farmers are turning to technology to give them an edge.
Tanner Tool showed a gadget many are interested in.
"It's a basic version of the Android operating system, just like your smart phone," he said.
Just like your phone -- except for the solar panel, not to mention the fact it's hooked up to a moisture sensor buried in the ground.
Coming off a drought few saw coming, farmers are keeping close tabs on soil conditions.
Brandon Hunnicutt of Giltner said, "I can monitor about anything I want to from the comfort of my home or on vacation or at the kids basketball game."
As planting season approaches, farmers like Arnie Hinkson face great uncertainty.
"Risk exposure like we've never had before," he said.
They also have more data than ever before, specific information updated constantly.
But Arnie says times are still more volatile than ever.
"Because markets have topped out and we have dry conditions and inputs are as high as they've ever been," he explained.
In a wet year, soil moisture sensors might save a farmer thousands of dollars, with hour by hour updates telling a grower to turn the irrigation off.
Tanner Tool of AquaSpy said, "Even in a drought we were able to save people money and bushels by getting readings off this and making real time decisions."
In one case, a farmer paid a penalty in order to irrigate more, when sensors showed he'd lose big bucks if he didn't.
NEATA, the Nebraska Agricultural Technology Association has seen its membership grow as GPS guided tractors and smartphones become mainstream on the farm.
But as much time as they spend staring into their devices, guys like Arnie Hinkson still have their eyes fixed elsewhere.
He said, "We still look to the skies."
They definitely would like to see some rain. The big concern right now is the soil moisture content, or lack of it, because farmers will be planting corn and beans before we know it.
Other sessions at the annual NEATA conference covered the use of aerial imaging on the farm, variable rate irrigation, and apps for phones and tablets.
Dr. Ronnie Green, Vice Chancellor of the University of Nebraska also spoke to the group. He talked about the challenges in agriculture, but said it would be cool to be 16 again because of all the excitement in agriculture.
He said the university has added more staff than any land grant school in the country, and has shown enrollment growth.