Infinite toolbox: Precision agriculture research advancing at Montana State

Montana State University professor Mike Walach flies a drone for a demonstration on Feb. 24.

Rachel Leathe, Chronicle

Jamie Sherman spends her summers walking barley fields.

She’s the director of the barley breeding program at Montana State University, and she walks the lengthy rows of MSU research farms, looking for the best performing plants. 

Those that are too tall and falling over don’t make the cut. Neither do any infested with disease, or that seed at the wrong time. The breeding program — which analyzes some 50,000 barley lines a year — seeks to fine-tune barley varieties for growers in Montana by breeding them for drought and disease resistance.

Sherman’s decisions are fast and instinctual. Scanning the crop variations with her eyes, Sherman said the process is almost like an art form — one that comes naturally from having done this kind of work for so many years.

But Sherman isn’t alone in making her breeding decisions. A drone overhead has already scanned the same field Sherman has, and it has a special camera to take measurements that humans can’t.

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