Clint Eastwood’s 1966 action/adventure movie “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” could aptly be used to describe the experiences of three growers and one consultant as they negotiated their way into the world of precision agriculture.
University of Tennessee Extension row crop sustainability specialist Lori Duncan moderated an open panel discussion at this year’s Milan No-Till Field Day held recently in Milan, Tenn. The panel featured producers Bob Walker, Fayette County, Tenn.; Jeff Hill, Lauderdale County, Tenn.; Jason Head, Logan County, Ky.; and consultant Joe Jenkins, Jenkins Precision Ag Service.
“This panel brought to the table a cross-section of precision ag experience and knowledge,” says Duncan, who works in the Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science Office at UT Knoxville. “Although precision agriculture isn’t new, we wanted this panel to offer insight related to the successes and challenges they have encountered, to hopefully help guide those farmers who are considering making the plunge into this incredibly expanding segment of farming.”
First Attempts, Costs and Savings
Bob Walker and his brother and farming partner, Bill, have used various precision farming tools for 15 years, and started with yield monitors on their combines and cotton pickers. “We tried variable rate (VR) fertilizer several years back and had some initial difficulties that frustrated us for a while,” says Walker, Walker Farms, Somerville, Tenn. “We purchased and installed a VR system on our spreader truck, but found out quickly it was a trotline weight because it wasn’t designed for a spreader truck.”
The Walkers went back to the company where they purchased the systems and the salesman had moved on to another job. “That was my introduction into precision ag,” quips Walker, who has since found very reliable dealers and consultants who have provided the guidance and service it takes to make precision agriculture work.
Jeff Hill’s first attempt at precision ag, after grid sampling and VR fertilizer on cotton, was swath control and guidance on sprayers. His brother was farming soybeans and needed help spraying one year, but there were no rows for the John Deere sprayer to follow. He ended up using 90 acres worth of chemicals on 75 acres of land because of overlaps with the huge 90-foot spray boom.
“After we installed those two precision ag tools on the sprayer, if I were on an 80-acre field, I sprayed 80 acres exactly,” says Hill. “It was a good first experience.”
Joe Jenkins’ first effort with precision ag was using maps for VR application work, but it led to complications. “No disrespect to dealers, but we just weren’t on the same page,” he remembers. “It’s much easier today and VR is the way to go.”
Jason Head sold precision equipment for a while and one of the biggest issues he has seen with the technology is cross-brand non-compatibility. “We’re moving closer to where we need to be thanks to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), but incompatibility has caused me more than a few bad headaches,” says Head.
“One of the biggest problems I encountered occurred after disconnecting a broken monitor, and after re-installing it, measurements were lost. when we started planting, skips and misses were the norm where we encountered headlands until we knew we had a problem and resolved it.”
It is no secret. Precision farming technology is expensive. Wanting the panel to address that concern and what top three areas of ROI precision technologies bring to the table, Duncan posed that exact question to the group.
Variable rating lime was one of the first answers agreed upon across the panel. “Everyone pretty much pulls soil samples, so it just makes sense to VR your required lime (and for me) fertilizer,” says Hill. “After that, section control on my planter and sprayer really saves me money.”
Walker applies lime via VR application — putting it only where it is needed. “We saw an immediate savings by using VR. I also reduced my seed costs thanks to my section control on my planter,” says Walker.
The first year the Walkers used VR on their planter, they ordered cotton seed the conventional method. They knew their acres and plant populations, so they did the math and ordered the seed. “That year we wound up returning two boxes of cotton seed, which paid for our section control in one year,” adds Walker.
Jenkins has seen savings by using moisture sensors under pivots and often eliminates two or three rotations. “That’s a savings that adds up,” he says.
For Jason Head, efficiency is a big ROI. He and Walker both agree about the value of auto-guidance. “In middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky, we have very few square fields. I may have one 400-acre field and may only have one straight side,” explains Head. “When you’re running a 40- to 60-foot planter and you can prevent overlaps, that section control will pay for itself quickly.”
Duncan asked if any of the panel members utilized cost-share programs. A couple used the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) under the NRCS umbrella that provides farmers and ranchers with financial cost-share and technical assistance for the implementation of conservation practices on land under agricultural production. “An EQIP officer came down to our farm for a half-day. We had accumulated the required data already, so it was relatively easy,” says Walker. “There are programs out there, you just have to look for them.”
Getting Started in Precision Ag
Duncan’s final question was meant to provide insight for farmers who have never tried any precision ag technologies. “What’s your advice for first-time-users?” she asked.
The panel’s responses ranged from finding a reliable consultant, to contacting your local university and gleaning from their advice. “Talk to other farmers and find someone that will answer the phone if you have a problem. That’s a big one,” says Head.
“I would also advise anyone to be aware of ‘unlocks’ that you may run into with a piece of equipment. For example, when using a GPS receiver and you’re ready to autosteer on SF1 (your lowest frequency) and then you want to progress to something like RTK, you may find it’s a $1,500 cost to unlock that intellectual property fee!”
The consensus among the group was to start small with a trusted source or supplier. Get your feet wet and move on from there. There are too many growers across the country with precision farming hardware sitting in the corner of the shop — which equates to wasted time and money.