Farmers learn to manage a bumper crop of information
By Doug Rich
A person might be able to argue whether or not precision agriculture technology increases yields, but he could not argue whether or not he has more information about his farm. Precision agriculture technology generates a tremendous amount of data and producers need to learn how to manage this data to their benefit.
Robert Greenlee and his business partner, Mark White, are adapting precision agriculture practices to their northeast Oklahoma farm and are learning the value of all this information. Greenlee purchased his first yield monitor in 1991 after a trip to the Louisville Farm Show.
"We always knew we had variability in our fields, but this was a real eye opener," Greenlee said.
He knew weeds hurt his yields, fertility issues caused variability, and varieties yielded differently from field to field. Yield monitors confirmed what he already knew existed.
As Greenlee began the conversion from conventional tillage to no-till he used yield monitors to compare the two practices. The yield monitor was a way to accurately measure what was in the field.
Randy Taylor, associate professor in biosystems engineering at Oklahoma State University, said what producers plan to do with a specific field determines how much information they need.
"I think the bottom line is we are trying to identify and manage variability at the sub-field level," Taylor said. "You need all the information that you can get to make the best decision that you can."
In 1998, Greenlee made a lot of changes to his farming operation. He began his informal partnership with Mark White; they leased a large farm near Tulsa, Okla., and more than doubled their acreage. He followed this up in 2002 by going 100 percent no-till and stepping further into the world of precision agriculture.
At the time they were using an older sprayer with foam markers. On big fields the foam would dissipate or blow away causing problems with overlap and skip. One field that bordered a creek was particularly difficult. Greenlee and White refer to it as the "finger" field because of the zigzag pattern along the edge of the field.
Doing multiple applications on more than 4,000 acres of farm ground, White figured they were covering about 15,000 acres with this sprayer.
"With an overlap of 10 percent we were looking at a lot of dollars," White said.
That is when they started looking at using a lightbar guidance system on the sprayer. There were none available locally but they did find a dealer, Steve Cubbage with Record Harvest, in Nevada, Mo., that could set up the lightbar system for them. At the same time they upgraded their monitors and added mapping capabilities.
Greenlee said they were able to trim their overlap from 10 percent to 3 percent. This paid the lease payment on their new equipment.
"The yield maps became a huge part of our record keeping system," White said. "We bill each other for everything we do, whether it is his ground, my ground or our ground. When we put it on the combines we were able to more accurately tell what each machine was doing. When you put two combines in the same field they don't cut it 50-50."
In 2003, Greenlee and White decided to begin strip-till planting their corn crop. Greenlee said they needed a way to dry out and warm up the soil in fields with heavy residue. They traveled to Illinois to talk with a strip-till farmer and eventually purchased a used DMI strip-till rig that they hauled back to Oklahoma.
"We decided we could not do strip-till without auto steer," Greenlee said.
They had looked at auto steer when it was first available but it was just too expensive. As more companies got involved, the price came down. Using the same dealer in Nevada, Mo., they purchased an RTK base station, a repeater, and auto steer for two tractors and their sprayer. White said this made it easier to follow the rows with the strip-till equipment and they could pay more attention to the planter.
"This is the best thing we ever did; it opened up a whole new world to us," Greenlee said.
At about the same time they installed an InSight precision ag system manufactured by AgLeader Technologies that includes a color touch screen monitor that provides on-the-go information and can interface with a wide range of planting, harvesting, and spraying equipment. Steve Cubbage said growers like the InSight system because it does more than just collect data; it collects data in a more methodical and logical way.
There are numerous advantages to using precision ag technology. Greenlee said they can run two planters easier, and they can do side-by-side tests of seed varieties across the field much easier. These are what Greenlee refers to as the "perks" of precision agriculture.
The InSight system can keep track of two different varieties planted side by side and shows those varieties in different colors on the screen. Move the monitor to the sprayer and it can be used to record what herbicides were applied and create an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report for that field on the fly. This and other similar systems can put a year's worth of data at a producer's fingertips.
"Being able to count acres and know where you are all the time is worth a lot," Greenlee said. "At harvest, when we are finishing up, we know exactly how many acres are left and the average yield, and we can match that up to the trucks that are available. That way we don't stuff one truck completely full and have half a load on the other one."
The system they purchased included Direct Command (swath control) that they use on their JD 4730 sprayer and their Kinze 36-row sprayer.
"Overlap on seed is virtually none," White said. "At a $1 per pound for soybean seed, next year it will pay off big."
Cubbage said the next technological breakthrough for precision agriculture is the ability to transmit information directly from the field via wireless connection to a farm office or a service provider. This wireless connection would download information in real-time.
"We won't have to rely on information stored on a memory card that may or may not make it back to the home office to be stored or archived," Cubbage said.
The next step for Greenlee and White is to match their grid soil sampling to variable rate fertilizer application. They have taken 2.5-acre grid soil samples on every field they farm.
White said they might eventually try variable rate seed application. White said once they get the fertilizer right, then they will look at the seeding rates.
"We will see changes in our yield goals," White said.
"I said at one time that if I had to farm with a computer I would quit farming," Greenlee said. "Now if I didn't have these computers I could not farm."
Those computers help Greenlee and White collect and manage a mountain of information.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.