Multi-variety planters bring another layer to precısion agriculture

Equipment engineering is catching up with an idea that has been floating around in the precision agriculture industry for a while—the ability to switch seed varieties on the fly.

For years seed experts have told us that if you put the right variety in the right part of the field, you will seldom be disappointed with its performance. We spend a lot of time analyzing plots and picking the varieties we want on our farms, but we have to manage for our average acre, not our best or worst ground.

If you’re like me, there is always the urge to plant that “Corvette” corn hybrid and push it to its limits to see just what yield can be achieved. But more sober moments arrive: I remember that slope with thinner top soil on the far half of the field. I think about what a wreck that variety might cause over there if the weather isn’t just right. With that thought in mind, I pull back from the highest yield scenario and choose a more durable “farm truck” hybrid instead.

MFA has good soil in its trade area that can support those Corvette hybrids. Unfortunately it seems to come in 5- to10-acre chunks. Multi-variety planters will give us the opportunity to stay on the gas in those good areas with a high performance variety, but still pull through in the tough spots with a workhorse variety.

Currently there are two ways to get a multi-variety planter. You can buy a new planter from Kinze. Last year they released the 4900 Multi-Hybrid. Or, you can have VSet Select from Precision Planting retrofitted on your current planter.

The mechanics behind the retrofit involve putting two independently driven seed meters on each row. The seed meters are driven by electric motors and a controller in the cab. The controller tells each motor when to start and stop. It also can vary population on the go. The seed meters sit face-to-face and both drop seed down the same seed tube—allowing for seamless transitions from one variety to the next.

There may not be many farms with a multi-variety planter this year, but I believe we need to start preparing for the technology. Here in MFA territory, we deal with some of the most variable soils in the United States. We may, for once, have more to gain from this variable-rate precision technology than other row crop regions. To use these planters effectively, though, we need clearly identified management zones to locate the variety transitions in the field. Finding those zones takes some time and effort, but it is the same information that underlies other precision management on your farm.

First, the variation in your field needs to be identified, typically using historic yield data or imagery. Once you can identify areas of high and low yield, you need to identify the root cause of those variations. At MFA, use a handful of tools to find the cause of variability. Soil testing, electrical conductivity data, landscape, and perhaps most importantly, grower experience help to solve the puzzle. It’s only once we understand the root cause of crop performance differences in the field, that we can identify varieties that excel in those conditions and place them correctly.

I believe that in the not-too-distant future multi-variety planting will become standard practice. Research from South Dakota State shows a consistent 6-bushel-per-acre response in corn—and that is with currently available varieties. In the future, I believe we will see seed that is targeted to specific soil conditions, which will make per-acre gains larger.

These are exciting times. To make multiple-variety planting work, though, will take an investment in equipment and time. It will take teamwork between you, your seed supplier, equipment dealer and agronomist make the investment pay.

MFA is uniquely situated and taking steps to make sure that we can do just that.

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