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Precision ag paying dividends

Precision ag paying dividends

Tools must be profitable Guidance system excellent return on investment Transition should be well-planned

For farmers, says Chip Davis, “There are toys and there are tools. We all have our toys — but for something to be a tool, you have to make more from it than you pay for it.

“For me, a guidance system is a tool that not only helps to be more efficient, it also gives an excellent return on the investment.

“I love farming and all the ‘feel good’ aspects of it, but the name of the game is making a profit. If you can’t pay the bills, you don’t last long.”

For Davis, who has a diversified row crop operation near Philipp, Miss., in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the transition to guidance systems was well-planned and thought out.

“In 2003, my father, Hiram Davis Jr., and I had been researching systems for some time. We made a trip that fall to Sunbelt Expo at Moultrie, Ga., so we could see systems firsthand and have them demonstrated in the field. We looked at a half-dozen or more systems.

“We settled on the Trimble system because we felt it was the most user-friendly and offered the most versatility for our particular operation. We bought the RTK equipment from Delta Positions, Cleveland, Miss., and got it installed in early March 2004.

“We’d been doing some practice runs to get familiar with it and about March 10, we were ready go to the field and start planting corn.”

But fate stepped in.

“My father, who’d gone out for his morning walk, died of a heart attack. He was only 56. We were devastated, and everything came to a screeching halt. When we were able to turn attention back to the farm, we were three weeks behind our planned start date for corn planting.”

It was then that Davis got firsthand experience with one of the system’s advantages.

“We’d been told it would allow us to go to 24 hours a day. We put it to the test. We ran 24/7 and we were able to catch up and finish planting about on time. There’s no way we could have done it without this equipment.”

“Almost every year now, when we’re planting or harvesting, we’ll run 24 hours a day. Digging peanuts last year, during a period when we got 40 inches of rain, we got a lucky break and were able to go night and day until we got the crop in. It was a nightmare digging in wet ground, but we had no quality problems with the peanuts.

“We were fortunate to get most of our corn out before the worst of the rains started. We had one of the best soybean crops ever in late summer, probably 40-50 bushel potential, but with all the rain they rotted on the stalk. We ended up cutting them for salvage.

“2009 was one of those years you hope never to see again. With the weather adversities, I’m just happy to still be farming.”

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Davis has one Trimble stand-alone system that he shares between a tractor and a combine, and another Trimble/Mid-Tech system that is devoted to a single tractor and is capable of both guidance and variable rate application. The shared system only takes about 10 minutes to swap from the combine to the tractor.

Although the manufacturers don’t guarantee or promote it, he says, studies have shown RTK systems can be accurate to one-half centimeter, about a fourth the width of a penny.

“We’re big on no-till, and with that kind of precision, we can put a seed right back in the same trench as the previous year, and we can do it row after row.

Configuring crops, fields

“We can do straight A-B guidance, or we can set up irregular patterns, or pivot circles. Pretty much whatever you need, you can do.”

He has the systems configured for various fields and crops and for various operations — fertilizing, planting, chemical applications, etc.

Davis’ main farm here is 2,000 acres, and he has another 750 acres in adjacent Grenada County that is rented out.

“My father bought the farm here in 1987, and I joined him in 1991 after I’d graduated from Mississippi State University with an ag economics degree. I bought the farm from his estate in 2005.”

There are three center pivots on the farm here — one covers 507 acres, another 249 acres, and another 161 acres — and a 37-acre field is furrow irrigated.

“All the acreage here is contiguous, and the fields are large, which gives us a lot of long rows.”

Davis says his family has been in farming “going back to my great-grandfather, and we’ve always grown cotton.” The only exception was 2009, “and it was just because the margins weren’t there. But, there’ve been a lot of years when cotton kept us in business.

“Last year was our first year with peanuts. We had 325 acres, which was somewhat more than I had intended, but I needed that much to make them pencil out.” The peanuts are trucked to Birdsong Peanuts, which has a buying point at Prairie, Miss.

“This year, we’ll go heavy on corn again, with a smaller acreage of peanuts, about 600 acres of cotton, and some shirttail acres of soybeans.”

“I do most of the combining myself, and these systems have sure made that less stressful than before.”

Davis says a pressing need in his operation is grain storage, and “as soon as I get over 2009, that’s the direction in which I’m going to be moving.”

Changing trends

The widespread and increasingly rapid adoption of GPS-based guidance systems has resulted in significant changes in Delta farming operations, says Jay Rose, agriculture sales specialist, Thompson Machinery, Greenwood, Miss., which sells Challenger tractors, Lexion combines and other farm equipment.

“Most of our customers are now using GPS-based systems,” he says. “They started with tractor units, then migrated to systems combines, sprayers, , and other equipment. In the last couple of years, RTK guidance systems for combines have really taken off.”

In addition to offering sub-inch accuracy in tillage, fertility, chemical application, and harvesting operations, Rose says, producers are able to realize greater efficiencies in fuel, equipment, and inputs. The result has been a reduction in equipment needs.

“Ten years ago, a 4,000-acre farmer might have eight or nine tractors; today, he does it with three or four. These systems allow him to extend the workday in critical spring/fall operations; now, he can go 24/7.

“Instead of running eight or nine tractors 10 hours a day to get the job done, he can now run three or four tractors 24 hours a day. You don’t see spare tractors sitting around any more; farmers are buying what they need and getting the most out of them.”

With the big move to corn in the Delta and wider combine headers — 40-foot headers are now commonplace — Rose says, the operator can’t watch everything at once.

“It’s more important than ever to have accurate alignment as the combine goes through the field. It’s practically impossible to eyeball it and keep it straight hour after hour. Not to mention that it’s extremely tiring.

“Without guidance, the combine may be missing as much as five feet of crop per trip down the field. Over the harvest season that adds up in time and fuel and yield loss. With guidance, trips across the field are precise. Because he doesn’t have to concentrate on steering, he’s better able to eyeball what’s happening behind the tractor or to monitor other functions.”

Systems pay for themselves

For farmers wanting to get the most out of their equipment, these systems pay for themselves very quickly, he notes — sometimes in as little as a year, but more typically over two years.

As is typical of most electronics these days, the systems have steadily been offering greater functionality at lower price.

“For a new tractor or combine, a system that three years ago would have been $22,000 is now $8,000 to $9,000,” Rose says, “and of course we can retrofit older equipment with these systems.

“Everything we order from the manufacturer now is guidance system-ready, with wiring/hydraulics in place. The customer can then choose the systems and displays to fit his particular needs.”

“Our Lexion combines, sold by Class in North America, are German-built and assembled in Omaha, Nebr. Our Challenger tractors are from AgCo. Most of the combines are tracked, which is an advantage for heavy Delta soils, and really paid off in last year’s abnormally wet harvest season.”

With the big swing to corn, more farmers are using 40-foot headers on their combines, Rose says. “Chip Davis was one of the first of our customers to put one on his combine.”

RTK systems have been widely adopted by farmers, he says, because of the superb accuracy they offer in all field operations, prescription chemical/fertilizer application, yield mapping, etc.

“Just about every combine we sell now has Ag Leader mapping equipment.”

Another trend with these systems, Rose says, is on-the-ground involvement of the farm owner-operator, particularly for harvesting.

“A farmer may have multiple business enterprises, but when harvest comes, he’s out there on the combine. They not only want to leave as little crop in the field as possible, they also want to be sure they get vital yield mapping data. If you don’t get that right, you’ve just lost a year’s data that you can never get back.”

While the farmer’s on the combine, Rose says, he usually has a laptop computer so he can monitor markets, keep up with e-mails, have access to needed information. “Thanks to the time freed up by the guidance system, and with all communications capabilities available nowadays, he can run his business from the combine cab.”

There are three levels of guidance, all based on the Earth-orbiting geosynchronous satellite network. The basic government system provides GPS signals with no correction and offers 6-inch to 8-inch accuracy.

At the second level is a paid subscription service that corrects the government signals to 2-inch to 4-inch accuracy.

The third level is RTK (real-time kinetics) which corrects the signal to sub-inch accuracy. This signal is usually fed through an on-farm base station, or through farmer or dealer networks of stations.


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