For Louise, Miss., cotton producer Darrington Seward, precision farming isn’t a high-tech, futuristic method of farming. It’s standard operating procedure on the farm and has been for quite some time now.
The fourth generation farmer, his father Byron, and Scott Harris farm about 18,000 acres under two planting companies, Seward & Son Planting Co., and Seward & Harris Planting Co.
They have 5,000 acres of cotton, 7,000 acres of soybeans, 1,000 acres of rice, 4,500 acres of corn and 500 acres of wheat.
The history of precision agriculture for the Sewards started about 25 years ago, with Byron’s work on variable-rate applications of fertilizer.
“Back then, there weren’t any variable-rate controllers, so Jimmy Sanders, our fertilizer dealer, would flag the field so my father could put out different rates,” he says.
The Sewards have become old hands since then.
“Precision farming is not really an extraneous module to us. It’s not extracurricular,” Byron says. “It’s the way we farm — everything we do is focused around precision agriculture.
After cutting stalks after cotton harvest, Seward will make a variable-rate application of potash, phosphate, sulfur and zinc based on 2.5 acre grid sampling.
He writes the prescriptions on a Web-based software program called OptiGro owned by Jimmy Sanders, Inc., and created in partnership with AgJunction and MapShots.
“It gives me the ability to write variable-rate prescriptions for multiple controllers. The applications are made with either a GVM Prowler with a Viper Pro controller or an AirTractor 802 with a Hemisphere GPS controller.”
Seward burns down aggressively to keep resistant Palmer pigweed at bay.
“We don’t do a variable-rate burndown, but we’ll get started in November and work though February. We want to keep everything clean 24-7.
“This past year, we used some variable-rate Cotoran based on CEC. We put out higher rates where the soil type is heavier.”
For the last 10 years, Seward has run four John Deere 1720 cotton planters, but will be shifting to two 60-foot John Deere-Orthman planters with hydraulic drives that will allow for variable-rate seeding of the 2012 cotton crop.
“We’ve done variable-rate seeding in corn, but not in cotton. I have a test plot on one of my farms working with University of Arkansas Agricultural Economist Terry Griffin and Arkansas Extension Cotton Specialist Tom Barber looking at variable-rate seeding. We’re putting out a higher seeding rate on our heavier soil type, where it’s harder to get a stand.”
The Sewards use their Rogator applicator to make the first application (variable-rate) of a split nitrogen application. The nitrogen is incorporated with a Do-all when planting cotton.
The farm will acquire imagery from Jimmy Sanders the second week in June, “and we’ll start using that image when the need arises for PGRs. We really like to manage our crop aggressively with PGRs.
“We also can piggyback our insecticides with our PGRs. We have more insecticide going out on the lusher parts of the field. But we don’t scrimp on the low rate, to help us continue to manage resistance. The control has been excellent.”
Matt Peterson, at Cleveland, Miss., helps the Sewards write the prescriptions for the Hemisphere GPS software.
In late August or early September, Jimmy Sanders will provide imagery for defoliant.
Ned Darbonne, a consultant with Bayer CropScience, and Julian Crawford, field man from Jimmy Sanders, “will scout our crop and provide us with the rates we need for defoliant.
“We usually find that three rates for PGRs and defoliants is just about right. Any more is more than the airplane can handle.”
Variable-rate applications are made by the Sewards’ flying service, Producers Flying.
“We have the absolute best pilot around in Kelly Peeler. He’s very meticulous and has provided us with a tremendous amount of feedback to make these systems actually work.”
The pre-plant variable-rate applications of nitrogen, PGRs and defoliants allow the Sewards to defoliate in one shot.
“It’s very surgical. I can also pick 5-6 days earlier than my neighbors who defoliated at the same time using a straight rate.”
Yield monitors on cotton pickers
This season will be Seward’s first to use yield monitors on cotton harvesters. He will pick with three John Deere round-bale pickers, which will replace six, 6-row basket pickers used in 2010.
“We’re excited about the savings and the increased efficiency with the round-bale pickers,” Seward says.
“Our operations had gotten like a veritable village, with huge crews following pickers around. It’s like it has its own ZIP code.” He gins cotton at Silver Creek Gin in Holly Bluff, Miss.
He says the farm has pushed its precision farming program “about as far as we can. What we’re moving to now is precision management to maximize efficiency with telemetry, e-mailed work orders and trying to manage as many acres with as few people as we can.”
The farm is partnering with Dakota Fluid Power and AgJunction to remotely manage a battalion of 14 tractors, four combines, two sprayers, a fertilizer spreader and three pickers.
“With the software, I can strategically stage the routes and the dispatch of the diesel nurse trailer. I also want to know if my operators are going too fast, which can be very critical in planting and harvest.”
The software also allows Seward to keep up with equipment function, speed and even engine temperature from his laptop. The monitoring system cost about $6,000 to set up for a tractor plus about $1,000 for an annual subscription.
The higher efficiency the system provides could make it well worth the costs, according to Seward. “What if the system can help me eliminate a $235,000 tractor? How much is that worth?”
For the Sewards, precision farming is using technology to build on a very simple concept — putting inputs where they need to be placed.
“Smart controllers apply our inputs and generate data that we can use for recordkeeping and quality control,” Seward says.
“When you farm on this large a scale, you can use precision farming techniques to know when a job is done. As-applied maps can truth it to make sure that it was done properly.”
It also requires cooperation and coordination between people, technology and companies.
“To get into precision farming, you need to find a good partner, somebody like Jimmy Sanders,” Seward says. “They are in the forefront of variable-rate fertilizer applications in the United States.
“You also need to have great managers and employees, and we have the best. Technology in agriculture is all about increasing productivity and maximizing yields on whatever scale.”