If you happen to live near any of the Purdue University farm locations, or perhaps next to a neighbor who likes to help Bob Nielsen and Jim Camberato do a little research, you may have seen their latest contraption. If not, imagine the weirdest high-clearance contraption you can, with three wheels, painted gray with black and gold accents, proudly flying a Purdue flag atop the machine. Imagine riding it through waist-high to head-high corn.
Nielsen does it in the name of research. Currently, Camberato, his partner, is relegated to counting rows in head-high corn and hoisting a long meter stick high in the air so Nielsen can see where to make the next pass. While the unit is collecting spatial data using GPS, they don't yet have it refined to guide itself by GPS through the field. "That would be great," Camberato quips. "Them maybe I wouldn't have to be out here holding this stick, hoping I'm in the right row middle."
Maybe watching them work reminds you of seeing an old Abbot and Costello rerun, but these two Purdue Extension agronomists are all business when they're in the field. Still, Nielsen admits that driving the rig, converted from an old Hahn Hi-Boy sprayer, feels a lot like riding a carnival ride. It's hang on and drive, he says.
Why go through all this gyration? Because they hope the information they learn will someday help farmers know how to fine-tune nitrogen rates, perhaps on the go. And they hope that someday will be relatively soon. There is already commercial equipment on the market to accomplish this task. The problem is that there isn't data to back up what the readings mean and how it can be translated into adjusting N rates for corn, Camberato says.
The strange looking buggy, built by a master craftsman at the Purdue Throckmorton Research farm north of Romney, is equipped with two sets of sensors out front. Both are using various light forms to attempt to detect the current status of N use within the plant. One is Green Seeker, already commercially available, but so far used more on wheat in the western states. It was recently purchased by Trimble Corporation. The other is called Crop Circle. Nielsen and Camberato have experimented with it before and saw enough promise to commission having their rig built so they could collect data and determine how to best use the technology to pinpoint N rates. Crop Circle was recently acquired by Ag leader.
The hope before the season started was to be able to run the rig in farmers' fields, and determine how much N to apply at sidedressing based on their findings. "The weather interfered, and we didn't get that far this year," Camberato says. "But we are collecting lots of data that will help us determine how the process should work."
Maybe you shouldn't feel so bad for Camberato, lost amongst tall corn plants. After all, Nielsen must ride the 'death wish' machine. The gearshift even bears a skull-shaped knob on top. Rather eerie, don't you think?