Three researchers from UNL stand smiling at the camera holding corn cobs in the middle of a corn field.
Michael Tross (left), Nikee Shrestha (middle) and Jensina Davis (right) traveled to a an inbred corn field at 84th and Havelock. Fields like these allow researchers to test out their findings and see real results. Photo by Ryleigh Grove/UNL Schnable Lab

Researchers are investigating how artificial intelligence can help improve Nebraska crops.

Although AI has become a popular new topic for many, researchers have been discussing for several years now the ways this technology may help the future of farming. Unlike what most people mean when they talk about using generative Large Language AI models like ChatGPT, Michael Tross, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln complex biosystems graduate student, said researchers are using AI to generate more than just text and images.

“There’s a lot of different types of models that you could be utilizing in AI. One of them is language models, which everybody is familiar with, but there are also simple prediction models. An AI model doesn’t necessarily have to predict text,” Tross said.

Tross is one of the 20 researchers in the Schnable Lab at UNL, where they use technologies like AI to interpret data and make predictions. Jensina Davis and Nikee Shrestha are also both graduate students who conduct research in the Schnable Lab. Together, the three of them have been experimenting with AI to see if they can speed up the process of selective breeding on crops like corn.

“It’s better to fail fast than to fail later in the seventh to eighth year,” Shrestha said. 

She said with technology using AI models, they can test different plant variations in a shorter span of time than what can be normally achieved with selective breeding. Davis used plant height as a specific example.

When we have different heights of corn, it can affect how much that corn plant may be prone to logging or falling over. If the corn plant falls over, you can’t really harvest that ear very well, and so you kind of lose that money,” Davis said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated in 2020 that 30 percent of food waste occurred during the agricultural production and harvest stage. Researchers are using AI to eliminate waste by increasing efficiency and precision.

For Nebraska farmers like Scott Hellbusch, making a bit more money because of research like this adds up. When farmers like Hellbusch are looking into new technology, they are looking to see what can increase efficiency.

“Obviously at the end of the day, we’re doing this to make money and make a living for a family, and we want things that are either going to save us time or make us money or save us money,” Hellbusch said.

Hellbusch has worked his family’s farm near Creston, Nebraska, his whole life. Today, he and his dad farm corn and soybeans, which sometimes involves a lot of ground to cover with just two sets of hands.

“We look for things that allow us to do more with less hands-on people,” Hellbusch said.

Hellbusch has seen massive changes in technology used in agriculture over the years, changes that have allowed just him, his dad and occasional seasonal workers to work the fields. 

“You used to have to steer everything with your hands. Now, we don’t steer much of anything anymore,” Hellbusch said.

He said much of the equipment he uses nowadays uses AI and other programming to operate semi-independently.

“Used to have to be out in the dust and dirt, and now we sit in air-conditioned cabs and heated and cooled seats,” Hellbusch said.

Don Batie is a fourth-generation farmer located near Lexington, Nebraska. Similar to Hellbusch, Batie also farms corn and soybeans. Batie said farming before the accessibility of agricultural technology, farming was a much tougher job.

“When I first started farming, obviously, it was no monitors, no guidance, no electronics of any kind, and it would get very tiring at the end of a 12-hour day. While it still may be a little tiring today, it’s a different kind of tired,” Batie said.

Batie said instead of being physically exhausted at the end of a long day, much of the exhaustion is mental. 

Batie’s farm not only utilizes what is commercially available but also has access to technologies being tested by UNL researchers because he works with agricultural college Extension teams. 

“I am sure I am an odd duck. Most farmers are probably not as willing to try new things as I am, but my dad raised me teaching me that if you do things the same way you did last year, you’ll walk backwards,” Batie said.

Batie said he has seen more wins than losses from using experimental technology.

“If you want to be on the cutting edge of technology, sometimes you have to be willing to try programs before they are ready,” Batie said.

His farm has used many different kinds of AI technology, including experimental research using satellite imaging to tell him when to fertilize. Research that increases the precision of farming is also something Hellbusch mentioned as a method to save time and money by not wasting seed or fertilizer.

Batie said he is thankful that developing technologies has given him confidence in passing down his generational farm.

“I’m planning on retiring in two years, and I have a daughter who is taking over the farm. It won’t be a problem for her to take over the farm because she is quite physically capable of doing anything that I do now,” Batie said.

Tross said as researchers discover ways to improve crops through data analysis using AI, they hope to improve crop quality over time. Research like this may not be accessible to everyone right now, but farmers like Batie look forward to what has yet to come. 

Nikee Shrestha harvested corn from a research corn field at 84th and Havelock. Fields like these allow researchers to test out their findings and see real results. Photo by Lina Corona-Lopez/UNL Schnable Lab

“I’m excited for the future, what my children and grandchildren will have happen in their lifetimes,” Batie said.

My name is Samantha Grove and I study journalism, broadcast and anthropology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I am working as a journalist for the Nebraska News Service. I have experience in print news writing, audio content creation and reporting. I have a special interest in museums and archeological studies when I am not doing journalism things. Human past, present and future has a way of revealing itself in many different ways. A human story is a puzzle and the best thing to do to put the pieces back together is to ask questions, talk to people and look critically at what gets left behind.