Technology on the Range

2/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

Precision Ag Evolving at a Blistering Rate

LITITZ, Pa. — Having the ability to map his fields from a planter or combine is not only a good tool for Elizabethtown farmer Jim Hershey to manage his crops, it’s also good for his other business.

Hershey does quite a bit of custom harvesting for other farmers. Using a computer mounted on his combine, he’s able to record crop information and yields, and can later print out the results for his customers, allowing them to make better decisions about the seeds they are using.

“Actually, customers like looking at a piece of paper that has a lot of different colors on it. It’s impressive,” Hershey said.

But it’s only the tip of the iceberg of what he thinks he can do on his farm, thanks to computer technology and GPS satellites.

Now, he’s thinking about equipping his sprayer with a GPS guidance system and auto steer, which would not only take the work out of driving the thing, but also give it the capability of determining the precise amount of fertilizer that needs to be applied and where.

That could save him lots of money in fertilizer costs.

“I guess that’s the next thing we’re looking at,” he said.

With the advent of technologies that seem to be getting better and more precise each year, farmers are starting to buy into the precision agriculture boom.

Dean James of Dan Cotner Farms in Danville, Pa., has been running yield monitors with his equipment since 1998.

Four years ago, he got a planter with row clutches and through the use of computer technology, he has set up “management zones” on his farm, where he can apply seed and fertilizer at varying rates based on past production data, soil types and what the plants look like in real time.

“I think between all of our systems, we probably have between $50,000 or $60,000 invested in it, but we’ve done it gradually,” James said.

Ken Diller, who has managed the precision ag department at Intercourse-based Hoober Inc. for the past seven years, has seen the evolution of precision agriculture from basic GPS technologies to sprayers that will now automatically adjust the amount of fertilizer using mounted sensors that measure the chlorophyll in the passing plants.

“All of this stuff continues to evolve. I don’t see anything stopping,” Diller said.

The concept of applying fertilizer “at the right place, at the right time” was the driving force behind precision agriculture, according to David Mulla, professor and interim director of the University of Minnesota’s Precision Agriculture Center.

Mulla began researching precision agriculture in 1985, when there were no GPS systems to speak of and computers — such as the Macintosh with its 128 kilobyte hard drive — had just enough memory to type a few pages of information.

Mulla said it started with the concept of farmers keeping survey logs to track what was going on in their fields.

Things changed in the 1990s, he said, when companies began exploring new technologies that would improve fertilizer and seeds.

By the early 2000s, the advent of consumer GPS technology marked another milestone, even though it lacked the precision of today’s GPS technologies, which has allowed the advent of auto steer and variable-rate seeding and spraying.

The growth of the Internet and wireless broadband led to the creation of software suites that enable farmers to follow whatever is going on in their fields and track who is doing what through the use of a smartphone or tablet.

“The interest has really exploded,” Mulla said.

Mike Santostefano, marketing director for Ag Integrated in State College, said companies rolled out so many new technologies between 2000 and 2005 that it started creating problems with systems that weren’t compatible with one another.

“We saw that precision ag was not moving forward quickly enough,” he said.

Ag Integrated was founded, he said, with the goal of integrating various technologies so a farmer, for example, could track data from an implement in a field using a smartphone or tablet, and exchange files between networks and software programs, all using programs and apps the company created, including one called Onsite.

The company also produces customizable solutions for companies, like the one it created for United Soils Inc., a soil lab company based in Fairbury, Ill.

Farmers can record information such as soil types and yield data using an app that automatically connects with United Soils. The lab then associates data it has on the farm with the information provided by the farmer to create fertilizer and seed recommendations.

Santostefano said a farmer can insert a standard USB card into whatever computer is on the tractor and do things such as variable rate seeding.

“It just helps them produce more, and it’s cost effective,” he said.

For some, dealing with all this technology can be a little overwhelming.

James said it takes between two and three years to produce enough data from a field to create a management system for it. He starts off by creating a yield map using a setup on his John Deere combine that measures crop production. Specific areas of that yield map are then correlated with the seed that’s planted as well as soil conditions and soil types.

After recording two years of data to consistently find varying spots in a field, he sets up a management plan by feeding the data into a software program to determine how much seed he needs to plant in each location along with the amount of fertilizer needed at any given point in the season.

Now he wants to go a step further and purchase a system for his sprayer so it will automatically apply nitrogen based on a mounted sensor’s measure of the amount of “green” on the plants.

He also envisions being able to go on his smartphone or tablet, where he can pull maps, measure acreages and show employees where work needs to be done without having to go in a field.

James said he spends up to 100 hours a year making sure things are operating normally on his equipment and digesting the data coming from his fields.

The savings in fertilizer and seed costs, he said, have more than paid for the systems he’s installed.

“If you enjoy what it is you’re doing, it’s a good investment. But you got to look down the road, because it is a big investment,” he said. “For us, it’s been taking the next step to better manage our crops. Instead of managing by the strip or by the field, you’re able to do a quarter of an acre now.”

Willow Street producer Jeff Frey, who farms 700 acres and raises 4,000 hogs, said having automatic row shutoffs on his 12-row planter controlled by a computer in the tractor cab saves money in that it prevents seed overlap in a field and saves time.

“At least we change it in the cab. I don’t have to get out of the planter, which is nice,” Frey said.

The sprayer, with section shutoff capability, works the same way and saves him money in fertilizer costs.

The fact that everything is recorded on the computer, he said, also enables him to pick up where he left off planting or combining when the weather turns bad one day and he has to continue another day.

He can also move the computer from the planter to the combine, which then marks varieties being harvested and the yields from those seeds.

“I sometimes have different varieties, so it’s helpful in that aspect,” he said.

The system wasn’t cheap though — $5,000 for his row clutches and monitors — and his learning curve was high.

Don Hoover, president of Binkley & Hurst, said the advent of precision agriculture has challenged his business to keep up with the new technologies that seem to be coming out each year.

“We’re definitely in the technology age, that’s for sure. It’s a totally different world than it was even five years ago,” he said. “It certainly has created a need for us to have the right people in place.”

Both of Binkley & Hurst’s precision ag sales representatives spent part of this week at a Case IH precision ag conference in Dallas, Texas.

Diller also spent time at the conference, where he got the latest in what’s trending in the precision ag world.

He attends the conference each year so the dealership can keep its Case IH dealer certification.

Mulla said the various technologies, such as auto steer, remote sensing and using the Internet for managing data, are all geared toward an ultimate goal.

“We’re ultimately aiming to manage individual plants. So in a cornfield, you plant 35,000 seeds per acre. That means 35,000 prescriptions, one for each plant. It’s just increasing the ability to manage smaller and smaller areas,” he said.

Other countries, such as Japan, are actually ahead of U.S. farmers when it comes to using autonomous vehicles and even robotics in farm fields.

“I remember going to Japan in 2003 and 2004, and they were already using helicopters and robots to spray fertilizer,” Mulla said.

Most farms in Japan, he said, are smaller and farmers receive a higher income for their crop. It demands a high-quality crop, with consumers tolerating very few blemishes or imperfections.

At the end of the day, Mulla said, when it comes to precision agriculture, farmers are looking for something that can be easily adaptable to their farms and something that can make them more money.

“I think it has to be easy to use, when you’re thinking about something innovative. It has to be profitable for farmers. They need to perceive some benefits from the adoption of precision ag,” he said.

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