Managing the Uncontrollable

By C. Waggoner 5/13/2009

New farming technologies may not be able to control the weather, but they are helping farmers manage the uncontrollable—so that a wet spring doesn’t have to mean a loss in yield.

Like many Midwestern corn growers, the Verell farm—near Jackson, Tennessee—is getting a late start on planting this year due to poor early-season conditions. But according to the Verrells, they have equipped their planter with GPS-guided auto-steer which will help them make up lost time.

“It takes a lot of the stress out of planting,” Johnny Verell said. “We can cover more ground and work at night a lot easier because we don’t have to worry about seeing our markers.”

Auto-steer is one of several new precision farming tools that are changing the way farmers operate.

Verell, 26, and his father, grow corn, soybeans and wheat on 2,800 acres. They first started trying new precision technologies in 2002. At the time, Verell was getting a precision agriculture degree from nearby Jackson State Community College.

“My dad made me go to college,” Verell said. “Mainly because he knew things were changing and the way we were doing things would need to change. We were going to have to get more and more efficient to stay in.”

Verell worked at the farm on the weekends while he was still in college and was able take what he was learning in the classroom straight to the fields.

“I could see the benefit just by the stuff I was learning,” Verell said. “We started running soil samples on our fields and saw really quickly how much money we could be saving because of our higher fertility levels that we have in our area.”

By 2004, they were integrating precision technology into every step of their operation.

Since GPS-derived agriculture products were introduced in the late-1990’s many farmers have been adopting the technology because of the benefits—improved efficiency, higher yields and better environmental stewardship.

Improved Efficiency

In the past, farmers would have to overlap their rows to prevent missing parts of their field. Now, with GPS-enabled auto-steer, growers don’t have to worry about human error in applications.

“Ten years ago we used a 20-foot planter,” Verell said. “Now we’re using 40-foot planters, farming the same 20-acre fields that we did 10 years ago. We used to have to overlap at least five feet with the 20-foot planter. Now, with the 40-foot planter, we are able to reduce overlap to a matter of inches. That really helps us be more efficient.”

GPS also allows farmers to apply fertilizers at variable rates based on soil test data collected from the fields in previous years. The data is loaded into an onboard computer that maps out the field and automatically drops fertilizer only where it is needed. With this technology, farmers can manage their fields spatially rather than on a whole-field basis.

“Variable-rating is a big cost saver for us,” Verell said. “Since we started variable-rating our fertilizer, we’re saving anywhere from $20 to $30 an acre just on our [potassium and phosphate]. And with nitrogen we just try to level out the field and make everything uniform.”

The technology is also available to allow farmers to fine-tune application rates on seed and chemicals in the same way.

Higher Yields

The Verells have been able to increase their yields by tailoring seed and fertilizer applications to be more ideal for crop growth.

“We take a few years of yield data and then write a prescription for each field,” Verell said. “We’ll place higher seed rates where the water holding capacity is higher. Once you start increasing seed in those areas you’ll start pulling out extra bushel per seed. The numbers start adding up really quick. That’s when the technology starts paying for itself.”

Environmental Stewardship

Precision farming has significant impacts well beyond the individual farm. For example, more efficient use of chemicals and fertilizers means less runoff.

“With auto-steer on the sprayer we’re minimizing the amount we’re spraying on our field borders,” Verell said. “The new technology makes it easy for us to keep track of what chemicals we’re spraying. We’re able to see what we sprayed and on what day. If we are ever asked for our records, we can just print it off.”

Precision technology also helps farmers reduce their ecological footprint by growing more on the same amount of land.