BOZEMAN — A Montana State University doctoral student and Ph.D. graduate recently received honors for their research on precision agriculture in Montana.

Sasha Loewen and Paul Hegedus in the College of Agriculture received Graduate Student of the Year awards from the International Society of Precision Agriculture. Both were recognized at the organization's annual meeting held at the end of June in Minneapolis. ISPA is a nonprofit professional scientific organization with a mission to advance the science of precision agriculture globally. Hegedus graduated in May with a Ph.D. in ecology and environmental sciences, and Loewen will graduate in December.

“These awards are a significant international recognition of the quality of research conducted by these students and for MSU as an agricultural research institution” said Bruce Maxwell, professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences. Both Hegedus and Loewen were researchers in his lab.

Loewen and Hegedus research seeding and nitrogen fertilizer rates, respectively, and how producers can use that data to precisely manage their fields. Both seed and fertilizer can be tailored for the most appropriate amounts for specific places in a field. For instance, if there is a weed patch, producers can raise seeding rates there to increase competition. Or if there is a hilltop with poor growth, they can decrease seeding rates.

Additionally, Loewen and Hegedus have developed an on-farm precision experiment framework since 2015. The framework is a digital decision support tool where producers can upload data from their fields and receive management recommendations. Hegedus oversaw the process of organizing and storing producer information and putting it into analysis-ready data sets so that he and Loewen can model crop yields and grain protein numbers. The team also measured crop yield and grain protein data at harvest time to add to the accuracy of what the field is producing. With this information producers can make educated decisions on how to manage their seed and fertilizer input for future seasons.

“We also gather a bunch of satellite imagery data. One of the principles of this framework is we only use freely available data producers would gather from their day-to-day operations or online sources,” Hegedus said.

Both Loewen and Hegedus came to MSU after switching from a different program and into the ag world. Loewen, from Manitoba, Canada, received his bachelor’s in anthropology and a master’s in molecular genetics. He focused on agriculture for his Ph.D. when the farm he and his father run went organic in 2016. He said the switch was a very eye-opening process for him, and he had to essentially relearn everything he knew about the farming business. He worked in an ag research lab at the University of Manitoba before landing in Maxwell’s lab.

Hegedus, originally from Seattle, received his bachelor’s from MSU in Environmental Science with a land rehabilitation focus. He worked with Maxwell on genotype modeling of weed populations. Hegedus said he liked working with data and modeling and found the transition into his doctoral program seamless.

Both Hegedus and Loewen believe in the possibilities that precision agriculture present and are passionate about showing Montana producers how effective they can be if they applied it to their farms.

“A lot of farmers we work with are older, over 50 or 60, and view digital technology as something a younger demographic enjoys. However, it’s interesting that these older farmers are still willing to work with their data and use it not to replace their decision making but to augment and complement it,” Loewen said.

“At Montana State, we believe in the power of precision agriculture and how it can take Montana farming into the future,” said Sreekala Bajwa, vice president of agriculture and dean of the College of Agriculture and director of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station. “Sasha and Paul’s awards are examples of how researchers at MSU work directly with producers and how their research can have positive outcomes with saving people money, expanding their yield and beyond. Congratulations to them both and we thank them for their contributions to the precision agriculture field.”

- by Meaghan MacDonald-Pool, MSU News Service -

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