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Next Farm

Producer Clay Mitchell of Buckingham, IA, is well known for his knowledge and extensive use of precision ag technologies. Ask Mitchell to gaze into precision agriculture's crystal ball, and he'll tell you about new technologies that will make it possible to apply key crop inputs with highly precise uniformity, dramatically increasing yields.

He sees a future where small robots, ground-penetrating radar or other technologies will detect, map and help replace century-old tile lines, which now crumble unseen, robbing untold yield across the Midwest.

His also envisions technologies that will automatically gather critical information about a farming operation in real time and provide instant access to it in the tractor, in the office, or anywhere with Internet access. A grower will be able to make solid decisions based on information he didn't even know he had gathered.

What Mitchell doesn't think will have a big role anytime soon is variable-rate application. He claims that variable-rate technologies have had negligible benefits to date. In an article titled “Future of Farming Technology” on his farm's Web site (, he writes that variable-rate application “is and will be for a long time, hampered by voodoo yield-response estimates that can cause more harm than good.” He says there are notable exceptions, such as pivot irrigation field corners, but mostly, uniform applications are far more desirable.

As these trends evolve, use of guidance systems will continue to proliferate. “Automated steering systems are standard on large farms today,” Mitchell says. “By some estimates, half of all acres in the U.S. are now covered by some form of steering guidance system.”

Extreme precision

Mitchell, who farms with his father Wade in east-central Iowa, thinks that what he call “extreme precision” will be an important contributor to increased productivity in the future. Extreme precision refers to the ability to apply inputs at highly precise rates. Accomplishing that is no small task, especially with fertilizer.

Section-control devices are examples of extreme precision. These devices, which farmers have rapidly adopted over the past two or three years, allow the effective application widths of planters, sprayers and fertilizer rigs to be altered to prevent overlap when coupled with guidance systems.

In addition to using row clutches on his planter to control seed and fertilizer, Mitchell has split his sprayer into 30 sections to reduce spray overlap. He predicts that the trend toward control of ever-finer sections will broaden to include all crop inputs, resulting in savings of both time and inputs.

The potential for input savings from section control already is well documented. “The input savings from section control can be relatively small, but they are quite predictable,” Mitchell says.

Section control also saves time, which can be significant. For example, before adopting section control on his sprayer, Mitchell typically spent an hour spraying field and waterway boundaries on a 150-acre field, and another two hours spraying the interior. With section control, outlining the field and waterways isn't required. That saves him an hour, reducing the time to spray the field by a third.

Sophisticated control and monitoring systems also will be critical to the extreme precision trend, Mitchell says. Right now, these systems are available for planters. Similar capabilities will become available for sprayers and fertilizer application rigs over the next decade, he says.

“We haven't paid enough attention to how even fertilizer is applied across the machine,” he says. “When universities have studied it, they have found it to be horrendous. It is just not even.”

Uneven fertilizer application typically is difficult to see in the field unless it is extreme, Mitchell says. However, evening out applications could boost yields substantially in many instances. “Today, there are fertilizer spread quality issues that can reduce yields by 20%,” he says.

The solution in the short term is to regularly calibrate sprayers and fertilizer applicators and to check them frequently to make sure hoses and nozzles aren't plugged. However, it's hard to detect a compressed fertilizer hose, Mitchell notes. “That's where real-time monitoring would be real important,” he says.

Long term, Mitchell is confident that real-time monitoring of fertilizer and pesticide delivery will become a reality. “Right now, there are blockage sensors that are kind of crude,” he says. “In 10 years, accurate control and monitoring systems will become standard.”

Improved water management

Water management in cropping systems also will undergo a revolution. Several manufacturers, including AutoFarm, John Deere, Topcon and Trimble, have introduced real-time kinematic (RTK) tools for ditching, building terraces and levees.

“The biggest difficulty with drainage is just knowing where the old tile lines are and where they have restrictions,” Mitchell says. “In the future, when new lines are installed, recording their location with RTK mapping will aid future generations in finding them, but we still need new technologies for detecting old tile.”

Research on surface detection using technologies like ground-penetrating radar has yielded only limited success, and millions of dollars spent on subsurface detection technologies for the similar problem of detecting land mines have not solved the challenge.

As an alternative, pipe-crawling robots hooked to video cameras now used in pipelines and city water and sewer lines may come to the rescue, Mitchell says. When linked with RTK systems, these robots will make it possible to develop three-dimensional tile line maps. Making repairs will be far more feasible, too.

“There are only a few crawling robots that will fit in a 4-in.-dia. tile line on the market right now,” Mitchell says. “The cheapest ones cost $80,000, but they are out there.”

Information at your fingertips

In Mitchell's vision of the future, the logging of critical data about cropping operations will be largely automated. Transferring data from the field to an office computer will be automated as well.

“Farmers have experience with recording information in various software applications,” he says. “There is a lot of opportunity for error. And it's often annoying.”

Mitchell's system of the future will gather and log a full array of real-time operating data from your tractor's electronic control unit, as well as control and monitoring data from your planter. The same types of data will be automatically logged from other field operations from spraying through harvest.

All this data will be collected in the background in a giant GIS database, where it will remain until you need it. Then you'll be able to call it up via a Google Earth-style graphical interface.

The key to its usability, Mitchell says, is that the reams of data you collect will be available if you need it, but won't require your management time if you don't.

For example, if you're trying to decide on the economics of a tillage operation, you will be able to call up a fuel use map to help in your decision. “You didn't know you collected it, you didn't know you saved it, but you imagined it, and in three taps on the screen, it is there, color gradients showing the fuel usage across the whole field,” he notes in his online article.

Mitchell says you will be able to access the information on this system via computers in the field and the office using cellular, satellite or other communications systems as a backbone. The system also will allow real-time monitoring of key implements and monitoring and control of fixed-location assets, such as grain dryers.

Mitchell Farms already has much of this monitoring and control system in place via a full-farm radio and Internet-based communications network. However, the automated information-gathering portion of the system resides mostly in Mitchell's mind's eye.

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