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Stepping up your precision effort

Rick Greene’s love for precision agricultural equipment began on his family’s Illinois farm in 1995, when his dad purchased one of the first GPS-based yield monitoring systems. After attending Iowa State University, Greene joined MFA Incorporated in various precision ag positions. Today he’s MFA’s Precision Agronomy manager. 

As Greene explains, precision agriculture methods help you maximize efficient seed and chemical application, leading to increased growth and higher yields. At the same time, precision practices promote good land stewardship. Greene offers advice on how to take the first precision step, and how to move up to the next level.

MFA’s precision experts can help you select add-ons. MFA experts can install them for you, or you can install your own. MFA also provides agronomy and precision application services that bring you the benefits of this technology without the need to invest in added equipment. For more information, contact your local MFA store, or visit Here is what Greene told us:

Getting down the basics

You haven’t taken the precision plunge yet. Where should you begin? 

This is like asking what came first, the chicken or the egg? Yield monitors and soil sampling both come with benefits and should be done sooner rather than later. Ask yourself, what’s best for you? Some producers like to focus on saving money, others want to increase yield, and many want both. I suggest you start slow. But it’s like getting a cell phone—you won’t know how you survived without it. 

Yield monitors report per-acre yield as you harvest. This is the most widely used precision technology—it’s been available on combines for decades. Newer versions attach GPS location coordinates to specific yields at different points within each field. Nationally, USDA reports that corn and soybean yields are significantly higher for farmers who use yield monitors compared to those who don’t. Use the yield monitor to quantify management issues like drainage, weed control and variety selection. You can add a yield monitor and combine kit to existing equipment starting at about $8,000. 

Grid soil sampling determines a field’s nutrient and pH levels so you can apply the proper rate of fertilizer and lime to specific locations within the field. Soil sampling has been around for decades. Variable-rate application allocates fertilizer to less fertile areas where you’ll get the biggest bang for your fertilizer buck. Most producers in our region pay for soil sampling through what they save on lime. In our area, pH varies greatly due to soil differences, manure applications, and the prevalence of river-bottoms and gravel roads. An acidic or basic soil decreases nutrient availability to the plant and hinders root development. You need a good root system to take up nutrients and water, build a good stand, and minimize insect and disease damage. A healthy plant is a happy plant. You can purchase grid soil sampling services from your local MFA for around $10 an acre. 

Yield monitors and grid soil sampling devices represent long-term investments—they may take a few years to pay off in terms of improved yield. 

Planter row clutches are hot sellers these days thanks to increasing seed costs. You can install a clutch kit on your planter that allows you to shut off an individual row unit as you near a planted area or end-row. Many farmers are seeing an immediate savings on seeds of eight to 12 percent by avoiding overplanting on end rows. For example, a bag of seed corn costs $280, and covers 2.67 acres at a population of 30,000. Using planter row clutches, you can save $28 per bag, or $10.48 per acre. This level of savings allows most MFA precision equipment clients to pay off their systems in a year and a half. Clutches start at around $10,000. 

Boom section controls are also selling briskly. Newer sprayer booms come in three or four sections, and you can shut them off in increments to save chemicals as you near the edge of the field or move over hills and valleys. You’ll experience a return time on your investment similar to planter clutches. These start at about $2,500. 

Step up your game

You already use some precision equipment. What can you purchase to bring additional efficiencies? 

Guidance systems use GPS data to notify you of your exact field position. These technologies can steer your equipment across the field and bring you back without overlapping your tracks.

Here’s an example of why they’re growing in popularity. If you spread fertilizer without a guidance system, a 60-foot pattern can develop overlap from 10 to 30 percent, or six to 18 feet. Overlap results in additional input expense, field time, driver fatigue and equipment maintenance. 

After a few years of entry-level precision systems like yield monitors, many producers transition into some type of automated guidance. The type you need depends on what you’re growing and your terrain. 

Assisted steering equipment mounts to your steering wheel—a motor turns the wheel automatically. Assisted steering works well for moderate speeds of two to eight miles per hour—for low-accuracy uses like tillage and broad-acre operations. The cost of adding on assisted steer to existing equipment starts at about $6,500. 

Auto-steer takes you up a notch. If you’re working over hills and around curves, you may need higher-end equipment. More accurate systems plumb directly into the hydraulic flow of your vehicle, allowing for quicker reaction time. The quality of the GPS system in the device also determines accuracy. GPS correction levels range from eight to 12 inches for WAAS, to two to five inches for OmniStar or StarFire2, to one inch for RTK or CORS network systems. As accuracy increases, the price goes up. Prices range from about $10,000 for WAAS, to $15,000 for OmniStar and StarFire2, to $20,000 for RTK and CORS. 

 The farmer’s window of time to operate seems to get smaller and smaller, and timeliness can make a big difference in profitability. Auto steering allows you to work longer hours with less fatigue, resulting in fewer mistakes and less down time. As your operation grows, you can work more land in less time with fewer equipment operators.

Guidance systems allow you to focus on the job at hand. You can:

•Watch your planter monitor to make sure seeds are placed properly and at the right population rate. 

•Tweak combine settings to minimize kernel damage and put more grain in the hopper. 

•Observe spray booms to make sure they’re at the right height and nozzles aren’t clogged. 

It’s difficult to quantify return on guidance products, but let’s approach it from a dollar-per-acre perspective. Say you plant 1,000 acres with a 50/50 corn/soybean rotation, and you want to install an auto-steering system on the tractor you use to apply anhydrous, plant and spray. You’ll cover 500 acres with anhydrous, 1,000 acres for planting, and 1,000 acres for spraying, for a total of 2,500 acres with the tractor this year. 

If your auto-steering system costs $15,000, that translates to a cost of $6 an acre this year, or one bushel per acre. Since this investment will last five years or more, we’ll divide the $6 by five years, for a cost of $1.20 per acre per year. That’s one-fifth of a bushel. 

Seed monitoring and hydraulic population control add-ons have become popular in our region. Seed monitoring provides information on your planter’s seed spacing quality while you’re in the field, allowing you to correct seed placement errors and improve overall variety performance. 

The recent drought resulted in a wide range of corn and soybean seed sizes this year—seeds that didn’t receive as much moisture are smaller. In addition, corn seed shapes normally vary from flat to round. It takes a fine-tuned planting meter to handle all sizes and shapes.

Variable-rate seeding helps you gain the seeds’ maximum yield potential. Seeds planted in less productive soil need more space to decrease competition for water and nutrients. You can get more out of your seed by increasing population rates on more productive soils, and decreasing them on less productive ground. This equipment costs about $6,500 to add on. If you hire an MFA agronomist to make the map, it will run you about $6.50 to $12 an acre.

Precision rates on the rise in region

Kent Shannon, a precision ag specialist at the University of Missouri, shares his views on how to get your feet wet with precision farming: Purchase the simplest GPS-aided guidance tool, a light bar, for $1,000 to $2,000. It won’t steer for you, but it will guide you down the field, helping you avoid overlap while applying fertilizer or spraying. 

“If you choose the right tool, it can also be utilized with a yield monitor in the fall,” said Shannon. 

The next step: Grid soil sampling to map out where to apply lime and other inputs. 

If you’ve been monitoring yields for several years, Shannon suggests moving beyond just gathering data on the fly. “Conduct your own on-farm research. Take the data you’ve collected and analyze it on your home computer.” For example, apply different rates of seed and nitrogen in strips, and track yields to see what works best. 

USDA research shows that producers were using yield monitors on 45 percent of U.S. corn and soybean acres as far back at 2005-2006. “That’s relevant to Missouri,” he said. “But one thing the report doesn’t pick up is the utilization of service providers such as MFA that apply crop protection chemicals. Here, I would say the percentage of acres being touched with some type of precision technology runs closer to 80 percent.” 

Precision ag continues to grow because it pays off. “I see producers sampling soil every two or three years instead of four or five years,” he said. “You may pay more for services, but you’ll save on inputs.” 

What’s the future hold? “More sensors that allow you to make decisions on the go,” Shannon said. “Also, technology will be tied more closely to input suppliers.”

Originally published in the April Today's Farmer magazine ©2013 MFA Incorporated. All rights reserved. Here is a LINK to the original version of this story.


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