Global positioning satellites and other tools help make farming more efficient and cost-effective.
Some things about farming haven’t changed since the first farmer put some seeds in the ground and waited for the sun and rain to make them grow.
But over the last few years, new technologies have greatly affected how a farmer does his work and how profitable his operation can be.
“One of the greatest things you’re seeing now involves satellites,“ said Tom Van Wagner, district conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Global positioning systems perform a number of different tasks, including steering the equipment automatically to reduce overlap and therefore the use of seed, chemicals and fertilizer.
Another advanced technology involves GPS grid-mapping, whereby a field is marked off electronically, the soil in each grid is sampled to determine its quality, and that data is loaded into an onboard computer that automatically puts fertilizer only where it’s needed. That not only improves crop yields, but it cuts costs and helps with water quality, Van Wagner said.
“Agriculture is big business,” he said. “We sometimes read about agriculture and how (farmers) are polluting and causing all these problems. But farmers are stewards of the soil. They have to be concerned about erosion and water quality.”
One of the ways farmers can see some of the latest technology in action is through the Center for Excellence program. About 10 or so years ago, Van Wagner said, a group of farmers saw a need for on-farm demonstrations to help them see how different products affect yield and assess whether these techniques would work on their own farms.
One of the hosts of a Center for Excellence plot is Tim Stutzman, who with his father farms 6,300 acres of corn, beans and wheat near Morenci, Mich. Prior to getting involved with that program, he worked with Monsanto on something similar, so he’s had about 15 or 16 years to be one of the first people locally to see what‘s new for farmers.
“It gives me a chance to look at new technology firsthand on our farm,” he said. “As a farmer, we’re always in school. We’re always learning. You never do everything perfectly.”
Saving money with technology
Another Center for Excellence host is Bakerlads Farm. Blaine Baker and his brother Kim farm 1,500 acres near Clayton, Mich., raising corn, soybeans, alfalfa and milk cows.
“Prices (for commodities) were up last year, so we thought it’d be a good time to get some new technology,” Blaine Baker said.
One of the devices he uses is a GPS-based automatic shutoff system that turns the planter on and off depending on where the field has already been planted. Avoiding double-planting saves on seed costs, which is important at the best of times and especially critical given the way the price of corn seed has shot up.
“It‘s gone from $100 a bag to $300 a bag in three years,” Baker said. Plus, by making sure there aren’t too many plants in one place, yield is improved.
The Bakers also use an automatic clutch system that uses grid sampling to improve fertilizer application. The field is sampled in 2.5-acre grids, the soil is tested in each grid, and the “prescription” for fertilizer is input into a computer. The rate of application varies according to what’s needed in each location.
“Say on a 40-acre field, you put 6,000 pounds (of fertilizer) on,” Baker said. “But when you grid-sample, you might have put 2,000 pounds on.”
The technology is also available to allow farmers to apply variable-rate seed in the same way, Baker said.
The Bakers haven’t adopted that yet, although Blaine Baker said he thinks they will. By determining where the soil is best, a farmer can plant more seeds in good soil and fewer in poorer soil, helps yield in both types of soil.
While it’s obvious that good soil should get more seed, it may sound surprising that planting fewer seeds in poorer soil actually produces more plants. The reason that can be true, Baker said, is that the farmer isn’t putting more seed into the poorer soil than it can support, giving the plants that are there a better chance.
'Stewards of the soil'
Yet another technology allows a farmer to map out his or her yield. When they plant, Baker said, they plug data on what variety of seed they’re planting and where into the computer, and at harvest time they can get yield data to determine what varieties did best.
In Hudson, Mich., farmer Brent Moore also adopted a number of new technologies last year. Moore and his son Jacob grow corn and soybeans on about 1200 acres each and about 400 acres of wheat.
“We’re trying to be good stewards of the soil and of the economy,” he said.
Among the systems the Moores use are the automatic-clutch technology that turns the planter on and off depending on where in the field it is, the grid-sampling system for nutrient application, and the yield monitor that tracks the seed varieties planted and how well they do. They also use an AutoSteer system, which among other things uses GPS technology to keep the planter going in a straight line, improving efficiency.
“The shortest distance from Point A to Point B is a straight line,” Moore said, and AutoSteer allows him and his son to plant more acres per hour.
According to Bill Copeland, an agent with Precision Ag Services in Wauseon, Ohio, AutoSteer saves a farmer about 10 percent a day in time. And, because it allows the farmer to not worry about looking for rocks and not think about missing or repeating spots, “you’ll take a lot of stress off you.”
“Once (farmers) go to it, they don’t want to be without it,” he said.
Farm equipment’s GPS technology can have as close to pinpoint accuracy as there is. The level of accuracy depends on the GPS system being used, but Moore said that his system is accurate to within about an inch.
“That’s probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever come across,” he said.
Moore does admit that taking the plunge into the new equipment wasn’t exactly easy. “I was the one who dragged my feet,” he said. “My wife and son talked me into it.”
And now that he’s done it, he said, “I’d recommend it to anyone.”
Farmers who aren’t especially computer-savvy will find it easy to use, both Moore and Baker said.
“My son read the book and he had it. It took me two or three days to learn with him helping me,” Moore said. “Anybody who has a beginner’s level of computer (skill), it’s easily accomplished in a short amount of time.”
“It’s fairly idiot-proof,” Baker said, laughing. “Once you get it set up, get all your information into it, it goes pretty simply.”
Of course, these systems aren’t inexpensive. Copeland said that depending on the level of the GPS system it could run to about $7,000. A yield monitor might cost $4,000, while an automatic sprayer system could run $2,500. A farmer interested in purchasing the whole range of equipment could easily spend up to $30,000.
But, the systems pay for themselves over time, depending of course on the investment and the acreage being farmed.
“You get a return quickly. In some cases, it’ll pay for itself that year,” Copeland said.
Moore said he knows that such advancements are paying off financially for his operation. What first enticed him were the five to 10 percent savings on seed costs that the automatic-clutch system promises, and “I truly believe we’ve realized a five to seven percent savings,” he said.
More cost savings come thanks to the improved fertilizer management. And the environment is helped too. “I’m confident in my mind that we don’t have any runoff,” he said.
He was told that he’d make his total investment back in three years. “I actually think it’s better than that,” he said.
Baker said he, too, knows his new equipment has been well worth it. “We feel pretty comfortable we’re getting our money back. The payback is pretty quick,” he said.
Stutzman, who also uses the variable-rate seeding, nutrient application and AutoSteer technologies, said that because the equipment can be transferred to a new piece of machinery rather than having to be replaced, he looks at it as a 10- to 15-year investment. And in that time frame with his acreage, “I can prove to you that I have a savings of around 10 bucks an acre,” he said.
Dairy to cash crops
Equipment such as these systems are far from the only technological advancements out there. For example, Baker said, dairy farmers can use equipment like automatic takeoff units, which remove the milkers from the cows automatically, and automatic ID systems. Those can track things like how much milk the cow gives, what the milk’s temperature is — an indicator of whether or not the cow is feverish — and what the cow does in the barnyard; if she’s wandering around a lot, for example, it could be a sign that she’s ready to be bred. The system can also route specific cows into different pens by tracking their ID and closing a gate in front of them as they leave the milking parlor.
As a smaller dairy operation, though, Baker hasn’t gotten into the automatic ID technology: “We milk 400 cows, and our herdsman is in the parlor quite a bit,” which means he can keep track of things on his own much more so than a larger dairy farmer could.
Back on the cash crop side, Copeland said one of the new systems that will be tested in the next year uses sensors that mount on the tractor or boom to monitor the “greenness” of the plant and applies nitrogen variably based on the amount of sunlight that day and the health of the plant. That will be especially useful on corn, he said, because that crop needs lots of nitrogen, but it might be tried out on wheat too.
Other things in the works include using cell-phone technology to download field records to the farmer’s home computer. And within a year, Copeland said, cell-phone technology will be in widespread use that improves on GPS by eliminating the current line-of-sight problem.
To Stutzman, one recent technological advancement has had the biggest impact on yields of all: “traited” seeds, which means that the seeds have been genetically developed for such traits as resistance to specific pests or resistance to Roundup, allowing a farmer to spray the herbicide on the field and kill the weeds without harming the crops. Stutzman also said that work is being done on drought-resistant corn and on ways to make a plant’s nitrogen use more efficient.
Traited seed is considerably more expensive than regular seed, but “I’m here to tell you it pays” to use it, he said.
Between the increase in yield and the ability to apply less pesticide and herbicide, the cost-benefit analysis is very favorable — to say nothing of the fact that it’s better for the environment and for public health to put as few chemicals and fertilizers into the soil as possible.
“I don’t know any farmer that doesn’t want to leave the land better than he found it, and leave it better for his kids,” he said.
To Van Wagner, adopting these new technologies isn’t really up for debate if a farmer wants all the advantages possible.
“You can’t afford not to have the latest technology in order to be competitive,” he said.
After all, said Stutzman, a lot of what happens in farming is out of the farmer’s hands anyway, like weather conditions. “We’re only in control of about 18 percent of what happens,” he said. “Anything you can do to improve on that 18 percent is important.”