Creating innovative farming technologies other farmers seems to be a family tradition for Missouri row crop farmers and entrepreneurs Bill Holmes and his son, Nathan.
One innovation, AgInfo System was the 1996 Computer World Smithsonian Award first place winner in the Energy, Environment, and Agriculture category. The product was showcased in the Smithsonian Institute for a year. "I was around 15 years old and got to travel to Washington, D.C., for the awards ceremony," Nathan says.
In the late 1980s, the elder Holmes was part of a multi-organization, multi-farmer precision ag project when precision agriculture was in its infancy.
"Along with an engineer, they cobbled together a small 486 computer complete with a touch screen, a bar code and floppy disc reader," says Holmes, who mounted the rudimentary device on an all-terrain vehicle and began establishing field borders and boundaries for grid sampling.
"The unit would sample locations and then our proprietary geographical information system (GIS) would extrapolate the soil sampling data and fertilizer recommendations across a map we would use to apply fertilizer more strategically. It was one of the first GPS-based soil sampling units many farmers around here had ever seen. The service and eventual precision ag system, AgInfo, was marketed to a few co-ops in the mid-1990s."
That mobile data collection device was a generation removed from a surveyor's transit Holmes used to obtain x and y points across a field. He instructed someone to take a soil sample at those points.
Nathan has been enamored with technology and electronics since earing the award. He stayed off the grid without even an e-mail address for a few years after graduating from Southeast Missouri State University, where he majored in ag business. "I just wanted to unplug for a while, come back and farm."
The 2,600-acre soybean, corn, and row rice operation is 98% irrigated over 40 fields that cover ground from Bell City, to Sikeston, and back to their shop in Oran. "Our acreage is condensed compared to other operations around us, some that encompass 40 miles or more," Holmes says.
Like most farmers, they vent about on-going low commodity prices and labor issues, but water availability is one thing they worry little about. "We've worked hard the last five years to precision grade our ground. Our slopes range from seven-tenths an inch per 100 feet to twelve-tenths an inch per 100 feet," Nathan says. "Dad and I have seen the benefits in the way we can move water across our row rice and other fields too. Between that and using Pipe Hole and Universal Crown Evaluation Tool (PHAUCET), we're more efficient, don't overwater or blow out pipe as much."
Southeast Missouri is a natural basin for Mississippi River flooding. "After the Little River Drainage District was completed in the early 1900s, it reduced the potential for flooding," Holmes says. "That is until the Mississippi River got so high in 2011, the Corps of Engineers blew the flood levee at Bird's Point, about 20 miles away. We felt the percussion through the ground from the explosions a minute or so after it blew, but that water traveled south between the levee they blew and the secondary levee, so it didn't make it to us."
A problem and solution
During the middle of the growing season two years ago, Nathan grew tired of the inefficiencies of managing irrigation pumps. "We made too many trips double-checking to see if pumps were on or off, filled with fuel, or almost empty. Once we found someone had left a pump on during a two-day rain event," Holmes says. "I tried spreadsheets that listed all fields and irrigatable sections. An X indicated the pump was on and a circle indicated it was off. Everyone would bring their sheets in at lunch and I would cobble together new sheets with the updated information and hand them back out."
That method lasted only for a short while. Sheets were being misplaced or lost, and when someone called in sick, nobody knew the status of pumps for which that person was responsible. "It was horrible. I searched for a product to help us manage the nightmare and found nothing, so, with Microsoft Power Apps, I built a database on the one server we had in the office that interfaced to a custom phone app," Holmes says. "We put the app on all our workers' phones that allowed us to track pumps and add more pumps as needed."
Holmes soon found his new web-based Microsoft app worked pretty well after setting up everyone in his network domain and assigning e-mail addresses to Holmesfarms.com. "I showed it to a few farmer friends, and I started getting positive feedback from third-party validations, Holmes says. "I soon worked with a company that specializes in designing apps. Today it's a database system housed in the Cloud and available from Google Play or iTunes app store."
Called PumpTrakr, (www.pumptrakr.com) it is expandable as more people buy into the system. "That's why Cloud-based servers are so important," Holmes says. "One of my friends encouraged me to create a way to turn off the pumps, so now I have a separate hardware controller that verifies the pump is running and allows you to cut it off remotely from anywhere via the app."
Today Holmes Farms manages its workers as they all manage the farm's pumps. "We track each pump's fuel level, burn rate, and record all irrigation sessions, Holmes says. "We also track maintenance concerns, can share the information with our fuel and parts providers for quicker delivery or pickup, and my stress level has decreased tremendously," Holmes said.
Year in review
They farm in a good environment. They had no major pest issues in 2019 and will not insure their row rice in 2020. "A big problem this year was frequent heavy rains that made it difficult to get the crop harvested. We worry about blast in our non-hybrid rice, but sometimes we don't get the yield to justify going all hybrid," Holmes says.
"The top of our fields haven't been yielding as well as the lower ends, I think, because of the cold water effect at the crown. We're also pushing the nitrogen downfield with the irrigation water. We're using less fuel and putting fewer hours on our equipment with row rice. Plus, we don't miss having to fix ruts, pull up or breakdown levees from flooded rice fields."
Broadcasting a wheat cover crop over beds they use for four years helps minimize tillage. "If you keep running the same rows, the planter and hipper have a tendency to walk a little and your rows will suffer," Holmes says. "We alternate 15 feet off the rows and continue to use the same beds. The soil is so healthy, I don't even have to put a foot on the probe when I take a soil sample."