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New frontier farms

Forget about wearing a coonskin cap or killin' a “bar” with a flintlock rifle. No, we're talking about a different Webster's definition of “frontier,” namely “the farthermost limits of knowledge and achievement.” Despite low market prices, some producers still push ahead with plans to stay competitive. We call their hardy operations the “Frontier Farms of the Future,” where new technology and new thinking pay off. We've located several operators who fulfill this ideal, and they've shared their visions with us. We hope you can use their experiences as signposts to blaze your own trail to profitability.

Cutting edge technology

If you want to see what a crop operation will look like in the future, just check out Ron Sloan's family farm near Assumption, IL.

Before planting, Sloan writes a computerized “prescription” for each field that indicates where seeding rates must change. He uses a yield map to help write the plan. Then he loads the prescription onto a small disk, takes it to his tractor and drops it into the computerized GPS equipment that automatically adjusts the planter.

Sloan does the same with nitrogen application. And he feeds yield information back into the computerized system from his combine's high-tech yield monitor and mapping programs. Next, he says, he will test variable seeding with different hybrids and varieties.

In his late 50s, Sloan is not afraid to try new technology to keep the family business on the cutting edge of the ag industry. For years, he and his four sons have tested experimental equipment before it has been made available to consumers, so they know what is ahead.

“Fencerow to fencerow farming is almost a thing of the past,” Sloan states. “Nearly all fields have four to seven different soil types. So variable seeding and fertilizing is the future. We've seen a lot of benefits in changing seed population by soil productivity and fertility.”

The Sloans farm 5,700 acres for 18 different management firms and landlords, including the University of Illinois. Their agreement for farming the university's 288-acre farm requires the use of yield monitors, GPS maps and intense soil tests.

Aggressive trader

Sloan's desire to try new technology applies to farm machinery, also. “I've been pretty aggressive about trading,” he says. Every year, he trades a one-year-old combine for a new one in a John Deere rollover program. He takes the new combine after harvest and doesn't pay interest until September 1. He calculates the cost at less than $20,000 a year. The Sloans usually put 350 to 400 hours on it during one harvest. This fall they traded a JD 9650 STS for a 2002 version of the same model.

Because one combine can't handle all the farm ground, the Sloans lease another new combine, which usually receives 250 hours of use. Sloan notes that the leasing cost of $100 an hour is tax deductible.

The family has considered going to a larger, 12-row combine and using only one. “But we have the manpower,” Sloan notes.

The Sloans use one 1,000-bu. grain cart to load on the go. In 2000, they purchased two semitrailers with short hoppers to replace single-axle trucks for hauling the grain from the field. Sloan says he wishes they had made this switch a few years earlier because it has cut trucking time.

The Sloans need four 4-wd tractors to handle farm work. They bought a new JD 9100 last fall, a new 9400 in 2000, and a 9300 in 1999. They purchased their oldest tractor, a 4-wd JD 8640, in 1982 and repowered it from 250 to 400 hp in 1992. In addition, they own a JD 8410 front-wheel assist to handle the grain cart and planting.

Hefty storage

Sloan also isn't afraid to spend money on grain storage. The farm has 54 grain bins to handle 75% of its crop production. “I like to have control of the grain and go to whatever market presents the most profit,” Sloan says. “I want control of my destiny.” He says the storage has paid for itself in higher market prices for the grain.

Although a big proponent of new machinery, Sloan says the key to making it all work is still old-fashioned service. “If you can't get your equipment serviced, you don't have a thing,” he maintains. “All farming, from planting to harvesting, has to be done in little windows of time. So we have to rely on a lot of service people to take care of us. When we're doing this experimental stuff, we can't break down and have someone say maybe they'll be here next week. You have to surround yourself with good people.”

Sloan's best asset, however, is his four sons, ranging in age from 29 to 37, who are partners in the farm business. “There are not many situations like this where you farm with four sons who all get along,” he says.

Labor efficiency

In an age when hog buildings are constructed to last 10 years, putting up facilities to last longer is rare. But Bob Zeysing just spent $2 million to build a state-of-the-art sow facility that should last for several decades. Equipped with the latest technology and most durable materials available, the 2,400-sow farm located near Marshall, MO, exemplifies one of the most modern hog units built today. It will take this independent hog producer well into the future.

Zeysing sunk his money into the buildings to make hog production easier for his employees. “We live and die by human resources,” he says. “We can buy all the concrete, steel and equipment we want, but without human resources, this place will not run. It will quickly be substandard if the people here aren't on task and doing a good job. So we must make it easier for them so they can spend their time on management rather than in manual labor.”

This new facility drastically cuts employee workloads. As a result, only six employees are needed to do everything from breeding and farrowing to weaning and cleaning. And only two employees oversee the 57,000-sq.-ft. facility on weekends.

The change in work is most evident in breeding. Only one person handles the 45 matings/day to reach the necessary 140 sows bred/week. In contrast, Manager Ed Schneider says 10 years ago he needed six employees to conduct the same numbers of breedings in another 2,400-sow unit.

Here's a rundown on the equipment Zeysing uses to make the unit one of the most labor efficient today.

DiCam monitoring system

Every morning, a production person dials up the Internet and downloads room and outdoor temperatures, water consumption data and feed information from the past 24 hours. Any information that is out of a certain range is immediately checked. A spike in water usage, for example, indicates a leak. “This oversight is one of the most useful technologies coming. Via the Internet, it is efficient and cost effective,” Zeysing says.

The DiCam system coordinates heaters, evaporative coolers and fans with outside temperatures to operate the most efficiently. And it does this while keeping a room temperature at the correct level for the age of the animals housed there. When outside temperatures drop, the system lowers inside temperatures to a minimum of 62° and cuts fans. The opposite occurs when the weather turns hot. The system triggers an alarm service if a parameter is too far from normal. The service phones people until it reaches someone personally to handle the problem.

Boar Bot

A small, heavy machine with a collar and short leash slowly leads a boar down aisles in the gestation unit every day. Trolling for gilts and sows in heat, the boar hooked to the robotic Boar Bot quickly pinpoints females that need breeding. An employee then artificially inseminates the animals. Through a remote control device, the Boar Bot moves a few feet further to let the boar check for more sows in heat. Records show this system produces 86 to 88% conception, excellent for any hog unit.

“The Boar Bot is here every day and goes anywhere employees want it to go,” Zeysing says. “Without it, one or two people must work the boar down the aisle and that is very dangerous because the boar is not very happy. This is where a lot of workman's comp claims come from.”

Automatic feed system

A new Cablevey feed system automatically feeds every animal in the building. The system allows for feeding different rations and amounts to individual sows. Anyone who has walked up and down aisles of sows with a cart knows this system replaces a considerable amount of labor.

Simplified cleaning

A ceiling sprinkling system cleans and disinfects farrowing rooms between groups of sows. A sow holding area also is equipped with sprinklers to clean sows before they are moved into farrowing rooms. Some cleaning by hand is still required, but not with a portable hot water sprayer. Instead, hoses hooked into an overhead water line are used to finish the cleaning.

Hog-proof materials

Anything a hog touches in the facility is made of concrete or PVC or is treated with a powder-coated paint. Zeysing invested in 40-in. concrete walls throughout the facility to increase its life and durability. PVC and powder-coated paint on steel reduce the rust problems rampant in hog buildings.

Never one to stop looking at new technology, Zeysing says if and when he needs to build another unit, he will consider upgrading to bar-coded eartags and Palm Pilots for recording animal data. Right now that technology is too expensive, he says. But if it comes down in price, he's ready to try it.

Flexible storage

Catlin Farms of Danville, IL, has a storage system that rolls with the punches.

The 200,000-bu.-capacity system gives the farm the flexibility to deliver grain at any time. Grain can be quickly loaded and unloaded and can be blended to the quality and moisture the end user requests. The system also allows Catlin Farms to dry grain gently — a trait that will become more important in the future if the farm pursues production of food-grade grain.

Catlin Farms officials met with Illinois FS experts to design its storage system after a pneumatic system blew corn across the site in 1994.

“We now have the KISS system: keep it simple, stupid,” jokes Chip Barnett, interim farm manager.

Eleven bins

Grain first enters the system via a 500-bu. dump pit equipped with two 8-in. augers. It then travels through a 110-ft.-high grain leg that dispenses grain to one of the system's 11 bins.

Four 16,000-bu.-capacity bins on the site's western side store soybeans. Four 18,000-bu.-capacity bins and one 24,000-bu.-capacity bin on the site's east side store corn. An 8,000-bu.-capacity bin that is part of the farm's original storage package can store either corn or soybeans.

Rounding out the storage is a 26,000-bu.-capacity wet holding bin that can house corn. Corn is also unloaded from this bin for shipping to end users. “That way, you don't tie up the driveway when grain is being dumped into the pit,” Barnett explains.

Dryer control

Corn that needs to be dried passes through a GSI 3626 dryer. “The great thing about this dryer is its infinite flexibility,” says Jeff Harshbarger, an Illinois FS certified professional builder.

The dryer contains six burners and fans. An operator may apply full heat by turning on each fan and burner setting at the desired temperatures. The operator also may dry and cool grain by heating the dryer's upper part while cooling the grain in its lower portion. This gives an almost infinite choice of drying combinations of airflow and temperature settings.

A GSI dryer control panel starts, stops and controls dryer operation. A DMC Calc-U-Dry unit monitors and adjusts the dryer so that grain may emerge from the dryer at the desired preset moisture content. The unit also controls the speed of the metering rolls that regulate how quickly the grain passes through the dryer.

The system also contains a Sentry Pac unit that establishes a predetermined combination of air temperature and humidity for stored grain moisture content. This enables the farm to sell grain at the moisture desired by the elevator or processor.

Barnett claims that the system is well worth the $600,000 to $700,000 the farm invested in it.

“We spend a lot of time trying to improve the bottom line,” he says. “This gives us the flexibility to do it.”

Year-round shop sense

It's the end of November near Cosmos, MN, and though there's snow outside, Don Hartung's heated farm shop is still busy. He and his employees do contract work for a local seed company, vacuvating soybean seed out of bins and into one of their semitrailer rigs for transport to a seed conditioning plant. “We'll run our trucks and additional contracted rigs every day except Sunday,” Hartung says. “Next week we're scheduled for 138 semi loads.”

Long after unloading at the seed plant has ended, Hartung's guys still need to service their equipment. As one semi pulls up, Hartung flips the shop door switch to let the rig pull in. The engine shuts down, and Lee Pearson, one of the farm's employees, immediately hops onto his creeper to begin greasing and lubricating. “Sure beats crawling around out in the snow,” he laughs.

For Hartung, who's first and foremost a farmer, seed hauling started out as a sideline. Now it's one of his full-time seasonal businesses. A second business takes over during the summer, when Hartung opens his shop to repair and service John Deere combines for farmers who come from as far as South Dakota. “With low grain prices, you really need to think creatively to keep the wolf away from the door,” Hartung says. “Having a good farm shop helped open up ways to keep us productive during the off season.”

Keeping an eye out for other business opportunities will ensure Hartung's success in agriculture's future. For some growers, expanding their farm services like the shop will be necessary to maintain a farm business. It will be a different type of diversification.

So how much shop is enough if you're interested in setting up your own? Hartung takes a commonsense approach. “It's important to decide what you really need before you go spending a lot of money,” he says. “For example, I think radiant floor heat would be nice, but do I really need to spend thousands of dollars on it when my conventional space heater does the job? I'd rather invest the money in other things that will make my employees and me safer and more efficient.”

Here are six of Hartung's commonsense shop philosophies.

Get good help

“All the high-tech equipment money can buy is worthless without people qualified to use it. I tend to invest in people and buy only the tools we need. When we've needed a specialty tool for combine or grain vac work, one of my employees, Charles Nichols, has been very good at building what we need out of scrap metal. Creative thinking and dedication to the job is a huge asset. Guys like Charles, Jeff Kinzler, Lee Pearson, Ralph Pearson, Marv Kinzler and Merle Miller are vital to my business.”

Stay organized

“We're 20 miles away from a hardware store and don't have time to drive to town or dig through a 5-gal. pail looking for the right size part, nut or bolt. So we keep everything sorted and labeled in cabinets and shelves we built ourselves. Nowadays if we had to do it, we'd probably save time and spend the money on ready-made plastic sorting trays.”

Stay mobile

“The shop never moves, but sometimes the tools and parts have to. All of our tool benches are on heavy-duty caster wheels, so we can roll them out to the job at hand. We also built our labeled parts drawers so we can pull one out and bring it to the job, then replace it when we're done. When it's vacuvating season, each pickup truck has a mobile toolbox that we can slide out for easy access.”

Save your back, fingers and toes

“Working in a farm shop usually requires moving heavy stuff. So we have a full complement of hoists and cherry pickers ready to roll anywhere in the shop. Everyone knows how to use them, and we use them a lot.”

Use more air tools

“We've run 1¼-in. black pipe all the way around the shop. Not only does this make it easier to use air tools where we need them, it also adds significant capacity to complement the 80-gal. pressure tank. This means the 5-hp motor doesn't have to constantly run. And when it does, it's still fairly quiet because we've enclosed it in a plywood cabinet to dampen the noise.”

Stay secure

“Tools are expensive, so anyone with a farm shop needs to protect it with adequate locks and an electronic security system that stays active even when the power goes out.”

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