When someone writes the history of agriculture and how farmers and the people who support them figured out how to raise an average of 250 bushels of corn per acre and feed 9 billion people — and both will happen — there will be milestones along the way that made it possible. It will be a long list. After spending time on farms and in tractor cabs this spring, I’m confident that planter technology advancements as a group, and perhaps Precision Planting’s SmartFirmer technology specifically, will be prominent milestones on that list.
I was convinced SmartFirmer could be game-changing technology the first time I read a press release about it and called one of the developers a couple of years ago. It uses electronic “eyes” running on a Keeton Seed Firmer in the planting trench to measure organic matter content, soil moisture, soil temperature and other parameters. SmartFirmer sensors collect so much data that Precision Planting is developing new display monitors to better handle and display all the information.
Hearing about this technology, seeing it at trade shows and seeing it in action are all totally different experiences. This spring, I rode with Kyle Johnson in his John Deere tractor as he planted a field with extremely variable soil types south of Churubusco, Ind. He had SmartFirmer on six rows of his planter. He was captivated by the changing values for organic matter. As planting progressed, he was also intrigued by soil temperature readings in the trench and how they varied both during each day and as the spring warmup occurred.
Johnson is still not sure exactly what to do with all this information, and I’m not either. But he’s thinking about putting SmartFirmer on more rows. The technology is here to stay.
The closest thing I can relate this to is the first time I rode in a combine with a yield monitor. I grew up in the 1960s, when no one had even dreamed of such a concept. By the time I began covering agriculture in 1981, a few people were imagining “what if?” and talking about the gee-whiz technology of measuring yields on the go, but most farmers thought it was impossible. By the early 1990s, the first yield monitors — crude by today’s standards but marvels of their time — appeared on farms.
I don’t remember the farmer’s name, but it was in northern Indiana, and I rode with him in an International rotary combine, shelling corn in fields that were also highly variable. Yield varied nearly 80 bushels per acre in one pass. Could that be real?
It was real. And while not every combine today has a yield monitor, most do — and most farmers wouldn’t farm without one.
Expect planter technology to follow the same path. If Johnson wanted to, he could set seeding rate to change as organic matter changed, as measured by the SmartFirmer sensors. If he did so, with one firmer feeding information to four row units on a 24-row planter, he could theoretically plant six different rates at one time if organic matter varied that much. That’s light-years ahead of the John Deere 494-A of my youth, which was considered a marvel for its day.
Will every planter have this capability next year? In five years? No. Will most planters have it in 10 years? Absolutely. The technology train is on the move again. Should you jump aboard?
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